Mama Warbucks

Hillary Clinton brings home the dollars for New York's defense contractors

Clinton has found the money in less dramatic ways as well. Her office puts out a steady stream of press releases highlighting military expenditures for the Empire State. None compare to the big-ticket Marine One deal, her aides say, but there are meaningful wins. Like the $16.8 million the senator managed to earmark for an upstate aircraft manufacturer last year. Or the $43.5 million in defense research grants she got for five universities. When it comes to fighting for such things, Israel says, "Senator Clinton has been an absolute pit bull."

She certainly plays the part onstage. Witness her performance at an April 18 visit to Telephonics, in Farmingdale, a 1,200-person defense operation specializing in radar and electronics equipment. Clinton had come to be briefed by officials of the company on two of its latest defense programs, in hopes of garnering her support. Afterward, she went to the basement to address hundreds of employees packed into three nondescript conference rooms. They listened raptly as Clinton relayed her 2003 pact with Israel.

"We have some of the best and most talented high-tech companies in the country right here in this state, but we're not getting our fair share," Clinton told the crowd. "So we're working hard to make sure New York gets what it deserves."


Senator Hillary Clinton may never see New York return to its glory days of defense contracting, when it was known as the "cradle of aviation." But she's trying. In fiscal 2003—before Clinton got her spot on the committee—New York ranked 13 out of 50 states in contracts, with $4.3 billion. Today, the latest statistics show that the Empire State has nudged up a point to 12 in the nation, with $5.2 billion in procurements.

Maybe it's a coincidence. Or maybe not. Many senators on Armed Services hail from the states ranking highest in Pentagon money. Here is a list of the top 10 states receiving defense contracts in fiscal 2004; also noted is whether the state has anyone on the committee:

1. California, received $27.9 billion
2. Virginia, $23.5 billion, represented by Senator John Warner, the majority chairman
3. Texas, $21 billion, Senator John Cornyn
4. Maryland, $9.2 billion
5. Connecticut, $9 billion, Senator Joe Lieberman
6. Arizona, $8.43 billion, Senator John McCain
7. Florida, $8.4 billion, Senator Bill Nelson
8. Massachusetts, $7 billion, Senator Edward Kennedy
9. Missouri, $6.5 billion, Senator James Talent
10. Pennsylvania, $6.2 billion

She thanked the employees for their innovative ideas, which she pledged to showcase to all the right people on the Hill.

"A lot of what will make a difference for our troops will come out of the companies of Long Island," she declared, to rousing applause.

Her appearance lasted 20 minutes, and she dashed out of the room before workers could shake her hand. But it was enough to leave them with a sense of optimism. One manager, who kept marveling that "someone so powerful would come to visit us," said how fortunate the local defense industry is. "Having Hillary on that committee will bring business back to these facilities."

It's a sentiment echoed over and over by local defense experts, most of whom have nothing but praise for the senator. "I haven't heard anyone say anything negative," says U.S. Congressman Peter King, a Long Island Republican. "They are pleased with her, and they tell me that every chance they get."

Adds George Hockbrueckner, a D.C. lobbyist for New York defense companies: "She gets the job done, and people love her for it."

And why wouldn't they? Defense and military folks give Clinton high marks for listening to their concerns, promoting their products, leveraging her ties to the Pentagon —in effect, for classic constituent services. At the same time, no one thinks her position on Armed Services can offer more than a marginal benefit to New York. As one retired executive from Long Island puts it: "There won't be any barn burners to bring here." The defense industry just doesn't dominate the state's economy the way it does in, say, Florida and Virginia. New York gets only $5.2 billion worth of defense contracts—a fraction of the state's $833 billion economy overall. Virginia, by contrast, reaps as much as $23.5 billion in military expenditures.

"There isn't much that Senator Clinton can do, in terms of the bottom line, on the defense front," says William Hartung, who studies defense policy at New School University's World Policy Institute. "It's not a big industry like finance or human services."

Then again, he adds, "the senator knows what she's doing. She's not serving on this committee purely for constituent services."

As with everything that Senator Clinton does nowadays, people tend to see her Armed Services work through the prism of presidential ambitions. The committee, as Democratic analysts point out, presents the perfect way for Clinton to burnish her bona fides to prepare for a 2008 bid. The seat gives her access to military information, a platform for speaking about national security issues, a rationale for visiting the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, a means to build up her own armor for attacks on her as a Northeast liberal.

"It's all part of creating a centrist Democrat image," says Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. By virtue of her post, she has become well versed in the latest weapons and field tactics. She has backed every defense appropriation bill, including the latest $81 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan. The committee, Sheinkopf adds, "raises her national profile in a way that is out of sync with how her enemies would present her. It's important for her career."

Clinton's advisers take issue with the idea that the senator got on Armed Services simply to boost her résumé. They say Clinton's interest in military and defense matters dates back to her days in the White House, when she pushed for an investigation into why thousands of Persian Gulf war veterans returned with various illnesses. With New York not getting its per capita share of anti-terrorism funding, they argue, the state needs someone where Clinton is.

On the face of it, Clinton has tackled her duties with a sincerity suggesting she's in it for more than opportunity's sake. "It's not transparently obvious that what she's doing is paving the way for a presidential run," says Michael O'Hanlon, of the Brookings Institute, who tracks the committee's work.

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