Little debate on Senate resolution supporting F-35

Democrats appear torn on the issue of the new fighter jets

F_35 fighter jet
Image provided by the Ministry of Defence of a Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning. (Photo by Ministry of Defence via Getty Images)

A resolution supporting a U.S. Air Force plan to bring F-35 fighter jets to Truax Field in Madison passed on a voice vote without any audible “nay” votes from the Senate floor on Tuesday.

An amendment offered by Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) and Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) that would have added a request to the U.S. Air Force “to further review the environmental impact of locating the F-35s at Truax Field in Madison with special emphasis on the health effects of the noise concerns” was rejected. The final vote was called over Sen. Risser’s objections that he was trying to “make some noise” about the noise issue.

Rep. Tony Kurtz at a pro-F-35 news conference on Oct. 8 in the Capitol
Rep. Tony Kurtz at a pro-F-35 news conference on Oct. 8 in the Capitol

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc) appeared with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to tout the bipartisan resolution—all of the co-sponsors were Republicans except for Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona).

“As a former fighter pilot stationed at Truax and as the state senator who represents the airport and the base, I know the value to the community of hosting the F-35 mission,” Miller said in a statement, “and also the value to the members of the 115th of the community support for that mission.”

In fact, the community has been sharply divided over the Air Force plan to bring the F-35 to Madison. 

Many neighbors reacted with outrage to a draft environmental impact statement prepared by the Air Force stating that an additional 1,019 households near the airport will be exposed to a 65-decibel noise level, and 132 houses where 292 people live will be exposed to even greater noise levels “incompatible with residential land use.” 

The impact will fall particularly heavily on low-income children in schools and apartment buildings near the airport.

A resolution proposed by Madison Common Council member Rebecca Kemble would have opposed the F-35, citing the disproportionate impact on low-income children and people of color. It also referred to studies cited in the Air Force environmental impact statement showing harmful effects on children’s learning from repeated exposure to loud noise.

On a split vote, with Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway breaking the tie, the council voted instead to support an alternate resolution that asked for more information from the Air Force as well as a plan for mitigating noise and pollution.

Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce
Zach Brandon, president of the Madison Chamber of Commerce

“Common Council Rejects Resolution Opposing F-35 Basing” the Madison Chamber of Commerce crowed in a press release.

“We are pleased that the council sent a message of support to the 115th Fighter Wing by voting to oppose this resolution,” chamber president Zach Brandon stated.

But opposition from neighbors has continued to grow. On Rosh Hashana, the rabbi for Madison’s Reconstructionist congregation, Laurie Zimmerman, devoted part of her sermon to scolding Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis) and Mayor Rhodes-Conway for not standing up against the bomber and not doing enough to protect low-income kids from potential negative impacts.

At the Senate press conference supporting the F-35, Kurtz waved away the issue of noise. “My personal opinion, this is not going to be any different than what the F-16 does,” he said. 

Lt. Col. Dan Statz at the Alliant Center talking about the F-35
Lt. Col. Dan Statz

Asked about the Air Force assessment that suggests the F-35 will be considerably louder than the F-16 fighter jets that are currently housed at Truax, Kurtz replied, “I can’t speak to their feelings on that interpretation. I’m just going by the data I’ve seen. 

“A D-8 bulldozer has a decibel level of about 95 decibels,” Kurtz added. “So are we going to go around to all the construction sites that are around housing areas and say, ‘Wait a minute, you can’t have a construction site here’?”

On Thursday, the Assembly will take up the F-35 issue. 

Resolutions by the legislature and the city won’t determine whether the F-35 comes to Truax. That decision is up to the Air Force. But legislators said they believe a show of community support will make a difference. Except for Miller, none of the co-sponsors of the resolution live in the vicinity of the airport.

But the F-35 is a statewide issue and is good for both the local and regional economies, Sen. Fitzgerald said.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald at a pro-F-35 news conference on Oct. 8 in the Capitol
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald hosts a news conference on the topic of siting F-35s at Truax on Oct. 8 in the Capitol

Fitzgerald emphasized the danger of losing Truax Field if the F-35 does not come to Madison.

In closing bases, Fitzgerald said, historically, “the criteria was the mission. How does that installation support the mission?” 

“If we want those people to stay there,” he said of the military personnel and civilians employed at the base, “you’ve got to make sure that you can demonstrate to DOD [the Department of Defense] that there is a need. And the need would be the F-35. It would be a transition that would keep everything that’s out at Truax in place.”

Opponents of the F-35 dispute the suggestion that Truax will close without it. 

Rep. Chris Taylor (D-Madison) points out that other cities passed over for the F-35, including Jacksonville, Fla, have retained their bases. 

“We can’t say what will happen if we don’t get the F-35s,” says Lt. Col. Dan Statz, deputy mission support group commander of the 115th Fighter Wing. He points to the draft environmental impact statement itself, which states that the “alternative action” to the F-35 program is to “maintain current aircraft.” 

While “No F-35” signs proliferate on the northeast side of Madison, and city council members representing the potentially affected areas speak out forcefully against it, along with Rep. Taylor, many Democrats appear to be torn on the issue. 

Ald. Rebecca Kemble speaks against the F-35 (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Ald. Rebecca Kemble speaks against the F-35

At the Capitol Kurtz complained that he “literally walked around the halls of this beautiful building” but couldn’t get any Democratic co-sponsors apart from Miller. “Some of our Democrat colleagues—that’s something you have to ask them why they chose not to sign on,” he said.

Taylor has a different story. A co-sponsorship memorandum is customarily circulated by email and she asserts, “They did not circulate it to us.”

Sen. Baldwin, who supports the F-35, has suggested that the draft environmental impact statement might be a worst-case scenario, and has asked for clarification from the Air Force.

Congressman Mark Pocan (D-Black Earth) went a step further and requested a 30-day extension on the comment period during which citizens can ask questions and voice their concerns. The Air Force granted that request, extending the comment period beyond the original Sept. 27 deadline. 

Pocan also asked for a test run of an F-35, side-by-side with an F-16, so Madison residents could hear both planes.

“We want to reiterate our ask that we think Wisconsinites would benefit from hearing a test run of both the F-35s and F-16s, so they can be the decision-makers about the F-35s’ impact in the community,” Pocan explained in an email. “We thank the Air Force once again for extending the public comment period, but ask that they reconsider their refusal to perform these tests.”

Taylor is organizing a trip to Burlington, Vermont on Oct. 22 to attend an Oct 24 meeting with property owners, the airport and citizens who have protested the location of the F-35 at their airport. Ald. Kemble and community organizer Brandi Greyson also plan to attend and bring along a videographer.

“If they are not going to bring an F-35 here, we are going to go to them,” says Taylor. “We’re going to meet with the community and the mayors of towns being impacted.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.

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