Metro-East News

Will Illinois missing out on NGA become an election liability?

Mark Kern
Mark Kern

The preliminary decision to build the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters in St. Louis rather than St. Clair County could become a campaign issue leading up to November’s election, some speculate.

But others say as long as local politicians are seen as having tried hard to lure NGA and its 3,100 jobs to a site near Scott Air Force Base, voters won’t hold it against them.

Among the point people who were hoping to deliver the agency to St. Clair County, and are up for re-election in November, were St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat; U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, and U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Scott Air Force Base.

David Yepsen, a political science analyst and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, said it’s a long time until November, and the NGA decision may not hurt local leaders who are up for election as much as people think.

“As long as they’re seen as having tried, and tried hard, then I don’t think voters will punish them,” Yepsen said. “If they were seen as sitting on their hands, ... then they might be vulnerable.”

Yepsen said this would probably be a bigger issue if the NGA said it was leaving town, rather than not being able to convince them to relocate to an area.

Yepsen said whether NGA would become a campaign topic might depend on what a challenger decides to do with the issue.

“It’s a long way to November; there’s time for other issues to come to the floor,” Yepsen said.

Republican Rodger Cook, who is running for St. Clair County Board chairman against Kern, said politics dominated by one party in the county might have played a role in the NGA choice.

“I’m really disappointed for the people in St. Clair County,” Cook said. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime project. I don’t recall a $1.75 billion project. I’m disappointed for the jobs it would have created. … This would have been a big project and job producer.”

Illinois’ effort to attract the NGA included offers of free land to the federal agency, boasting about the St. Clair County site’s proximity to Scott Air Force Base as being the most secure, and promises of infrastructure improvements in the area, including a MetroLink stop.

Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer, even touted his friendship with NGA Director Richard Cardillo.

However in April, the NGA director issued a preliminary decision to build the new NGA West campus in north St. Louis, in part because the agency believed it would be easier to attract and retain high-tech employees.

Cardillo is expected to announce his final decision in June on where to build the NGA western headquarters, five months before the general election.

Kirk’s campaign declined to comment for this story. The campaign for U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, Kirk’s Democratic opponent on the November ballot, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Kirk recently called for a federal General Accounting Office probe into how the preliminary decision was made.

Cook said there is a negative political climate in the county, and it could lead to a higher costs of doing business in the county.

“Decisions are based on what’s best for the party, rather than what’s best for the people,” Cook said.

Cook said he plans to bring up the NGA decision leading up to the November election, as one instance when the county lost jobs.

“If people are afraid to come to St. Clair County to build a project and create jobs … I think we need to break up the one-party rule,” Cook said. “If that’s finger-pointing, so be it.”

Kern, the County Board chairman, defended St. Clair County’s offer and work as a bipartisan effort.

“We had Republicans as well as Democrats working on this issue in a totally nonpartisan way. For whatever this site was picked in Missouri,” Kern said. “I know we’re mystified as to those reasons.”

Kern said it was a community effort to try to land the NGA.

“It’s unfortunate that during an election season, candidates will say anything to get elected,” Kern said. “But what I could tell you is. This was a bipartisan effort on all sides, from all parties, that put forth a great effort.”

“The county put its best foot forward and we feel we have the best site, and not for any parochial reasons, but we truly have the best site,” Kern added. “Not only for NGA employees but for the taxpayers.”

Bost agreed it was a bi-partisan effort to try to bring NGA to St. Clair County.

“It doesn’t matter about the politics of it,” Bost said. “Let me tell you I’ve never seen an issue where both Republicans and Democrats have worked more together to see and make sure the location that is used is best for the mission and most secure for this nation.”

Bost said he didn’t think it would be brought up during the upcoming general election campaign.

“It would be very difficult to use it in political statement, especially when you’ve got two senators from both parties working with you,” Bost said.

During a recent appearance with Bost near East Alton, U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, said Bost worked hard to deliver the NGA to the metro-east.

“I’ve never seen anybody work harder on an issue as important to the metro-east, Scott Air Force Base, and our local community as Mike Bost has on this,” Davis said.

C.J. Baricevic, the Democrat from Belleville who is challenging Bost in the Illinois 12th District, said the NGA decision is something voters will have to consider, as St. Clair County was in a great position to secure the development.

“Being elected is about more than voting on issues on Capitol Hill,” Baricevic said. “You have to be an advocate for your district.”

Baricevic noted if the NGA decision went the other way, there would be lots of pats on the back.

“If Mike Bost were to land the NGA, you better believe he would take all the credit,” Baricevic said. “In this line of work, you have to take the blame if you can’t pull it off.”

Baricevic also noted ongoing issues including the Baldwin power plant shutting down two of its units among other campaign issues.

“The most important thing is to make all issues known to voters and let them decide,” Barcevic said. “I can tell you certainly these are the type of issues that will be important to voters.”

Joseph Bustos: 618-239-2451, @JoeBReporter