FORT WORTH — New York has Wall Street. West Virginia has coal. Los Angeles has Hollywood. And Fort Worth has the F-35 plane.
For more than a decade, this aircraft has served as the economic lifeblood of the west side of town, where it is manufactured. Yet, the F-35 is deeply unpopular elsewhere in the country, thanks to a series of cost and scheduling overruns.
And unfortunately for its manufacturer, Lockheed Martin — and Fort Worth — the F-35 is now in the crosshairs of President-elect Donald Trump.
Is Cowtown rattled?
“Oh, absolutely,” said U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, a Fort Worth Democrat. “Everybody’s talking about it.”
“It was something that I would say sent fear through the people that work for the plant, Republicans that are longtime, proud Fort Worth residents,” he added. “It was something that got everybody’s ear.”
It started this month, when President-elect Donald Trump tweeted: “The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
He since met with executives from Lockheed and rival Boeing and added to the anxiety on Thursday with a follow-up tweet, indicating he might pull back on the F-35 manufacturing in lieu of a Boeing aircraft.
“Long term, it would be catastrophic,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said of the economic impact of canceling the F-35.
Veasey and many analysts say there is no comparison to the F-35. Pointing to the plane's ability to evade radar detection, he said the fighter can do things that military aircraft from the previous generation can't do.
“This is the first plane that was built for all of the branches of the military,” he added. “So every branch is going to use the F-35.”
"Black hole of spending"
Trump's Boeing remark revved up a rivalry over the plane that goes back more than 15 years: Lockheed Martin beat out Boeing for the F-35 contract in 2001.
Former Mayor Kenneth Barr told the Tribune that "it was truly a phenomenal day in Fort Worth" when the F-35 contract was awarded. "And the contract has gone on to be much more valuable than we originally anticipated from a financial standpoint.”
But the F-35 has had detractors long before Trump expressed his concerns.
The project has "become a black hole of spending,” said William Christian, the director of government affairs for a fiscally conservative group called Citizens Against Government Waste.
In recent years, Christian's organization and other groups have criticized the project for blowing through budgets and scheduling deadlines, for projected maintenance costs, and for design flaws.
"With so much invested in the program, it has become increasingly difficult to make the case that the [F-35] should be scrapped altogether,” a 2015 CAGW blog post stated.
Bloomberg News called the project “too big to kill," and in recent years, the plane received critical coverage from news outlets like 60 Minutes and Vanity Fair magazine.
Representatives from Lockheed Martin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Critics have argued that powerful members of Congress have shepherded unnecessary defense spending to prop up their districts back home.
“I ask them to come walk though Lockheed and to see the jobs being done there,” said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, the Republican who represents the Lockheed Martin plant. “It’s not propping up a city at all.”
Her mayor concurred.
“This is definitely not a jobs program,” Price countered. “But it does support — the F-35 and Lockheed support — 140-plus thousand jobs in America that are good manufacturing jobs, and 10,000-plus of those are right here in Fort Worth and 40,000 in Texas.”
From Price’s perspective, Granger is the central political figure in protecting the deal.
A key lawmaker in F-35 debate
Granger is a respected and quietly powerful figure around Capitol Hill. But also, she is a senior member in the Appropriations Committee - the arm of Congress that controls federal spending. Her rank on the committee carries such weight in the halls of Congress that these members are jokingly designated as “cardinals.”
Granger won her seat in Congress in 1996 and has spent the last two decades building her power base among the House GOP conference and in the Appropriations Committee. She could become a future contender to be the committee’s chairwoman.
In an interview that took place before Trump's follow-up tweet on Thursday, Granger said she was disappointed with the early December tweet.
“Quite a lot of work went together in preparation and a lot of attention to costs,” she said Wednesday of the plane. “I’m anxious for him to get the briefings to see what that’s about.”
Granger, a former mayor of Fort Worth, lived through a similar instance of economic anxiety tied to a plane contract.
She took over leadership of the city May 1991, as Fort Worth reeled in the wake of then-U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's cancelation of another major plane project, the A-12, at General Dynamics (the preceding owner of the Lockheed plant in west Fort Worth).
The city fell into an economic slump, but recovered.
“That’s not the situation today,” Granger said.
“Fort Worth has a much more diversified work force and economy, and that’s healthy,” she added. “But what we are saying is, we make the best planes and helicopters in the world.”
Touting security benefits
Granger further touted the plane’s capacity to support allies, including Israel.
“It’s going to be very important to our economy, but also to the security of our allies,” she said.
Her Democratic colleague from Fort Worth, Veasey, is on his own trajectory to protect the F-35: He serves on the House Armed Services Committee.
Beyond Granger and Veasey, Texas has the most powerful delegation of any state. There are 38 members, including seven committee chairmen (including House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry of Clarendon) and Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn.
Veasey, Granger and Thornberry are likely to be the three most important players in protecting the plane. But they all share a common political thread: None were vocally supportive of Trump’s presidential campaign, and Granger called on Trump to drop out of the race after the release of the controversial Access Hollywood video.
“No, I’m not worried about that at all,” Granger said. “The plane really sells itself.”
Granger, Veasey and the others will take up the issue when Trump and the new Congress take office in January. But for now, Fort Worth residents will continue to admire their plane.
On Friday, the city will host the Armed Services Bowl. The lead sponsor of the football game, is, of course, Lockheed Martin. To promote the event, the city hosted a showing of a model F-35 in downtown. Hundreds of locals waited in line for about two hours on Wednesday to sit for a few seconds in the cockpit of the F-35 display.
Edgar Villa, a Lockheed Martin employee, was one of those Texans on Wednesday.
“Once he gets more knowledgable about the airplane, I’m pretty sure he won’t do anything like that,” he said of Trump. “We all support this aircraft. We’re all 100 percent behind this aircraft.”
The mayor will continue to marvel at the screeching of test planes that crisscross over west Fort Worth.
“You stop talking, and you enjoy the sound of freedom going by,” Price said.
Disclosure: Lockheed Martin and Boeing have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.