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Bipartisan front on display on behalf of Boeing planes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 7, 2009 -In a rare public show of solidarity, most of the region's top elected officials -- Democrat and Republican -- underscored on Sunday their support for continued production of Boeing's C-17 and F/A-18 aircraft.

That message resonated with top Boeing officials, labor leaders and hundreds of Boeing workers who turned out for Sunday's rally at the Bridgeton headquarters of the Machinists Union, District 9.

The bipartisan speakers included U.S. Sens. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis, and three top regional officials: St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, both Democrats, and St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann, a Republican.

All signed a giant replica of a letter to the White House that appealed for a change in the latest administration plan that calls for reducing or ending production of both planes. Also signing the letter, but not present Sunday, were Reps. Todd Akin, R-Town Country; John Shimkus, R-Collinsville; Jerry Costello, D-Belleville, and William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.

"We've got the ball started, it's rolling,'' said John Van Gels, Boeing's vice president of operations, as he assessed the importance of such a united front to persuade the military and the Obama administration that the planes are needed for the nation's security.

At stake for the St. Louis region is the 16,000 Boeing jobs, and the thousands of workers at firms that supply parts or other services for the planes or the Boeing employees.

Van Gels told the crowd that loss of the contracts could threaten Boeing's continued presence in St. Louis. "We want to stay. All we've got to do is get the work,'' Van Gels said, igniting cheers.

Missouri AFL-CIO president Hugh McVey added that good-paying work is harder for many Missourians to find. "Our industry is falling apart,'' McVey said. "There are no good jobs outstate, and it's about time we stood up."

Bond, R-Mo., kicked off the parade of political speakers by citing his recent success -- with the help of Senate allies -- in getting eight more C-17 cargo planes put into this year's supplemental defense budget. "We're going back to get the full buy in the FY10 budget,'' he added.

Bond emphasized that the issue, as he saw it, wasn't just St. Louis area jobs -- but primarily national security.

The C-17's chief rival, the older and larger C-5, isn't as reliable, he said. Bond then repeated his harsher criticisms of the F-18's alleged replacment, the F-35 joint strike fighter, which he dubbed the "joint strike failure."

McCaskill, D-Mo., said it's clear that the military needs more of both planes, especially while the U.S. is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"They're flying the wings off the C-17'' to get troops and supplies into those war zones, she said.

McCaskill went on to call the F-18 fighter "the backbone'' of the nation's air-fighting power, especially from carriers. "The Navy loves your plane,'' she said.

Dooley offered a particularly personal touch, noting that he and his father both are Boeing retirees. "It gave us a great life,'' Dooley said.

Slay and Ehlmann each praised the bipartisan pitch, emphasizing that such unity would be needed to keep the planes and their jobs in St. Louis.

And Carnahan touched off cheers when he cited the demise of so many manufacturing jobs in the United States. "We cannot outsource our national security,'' he said.

Afterwards, Van Gels also confirmed that there no longer is any doubt -- from the perspective of the company or its workers -- that McCaskill was solidly in its corner. (A few weeks ago, the company and union leaders weren't so sure).

Referring to McCaskill's close ties to President Barack Obama, Van Gels said, "Claire was here today. I think we've underestimated how much she can do in the background."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.