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Times of Trenton - Saxton Leaving With One Regret Congressman Recalls Warning of Terrorism In the Middle East

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Times of Trenton - Saxton Leaving With One Regret Congressman Recalls Warning of Terrorism In the Middle East

Twenty-four years and only one regret.

Republican Congressman Jim Saxton isn't one to look in hindsight and agonize over what could've been different.

After all, his political road is well decorated:

Landmark initiatives that protected thousands of New Jersey jobs and environmental bills aimed at preserving tourism near the Jersey Shore, ultimately saving hundreds of families there from losing their homes.

Yes, Saxton is proud of many things he's accomplished since 1984, when he first won the seat to represent New Jersey's 3rd Congressional District.

But there is one matter he wished had turned out differently.

"There was one frustrating thing that happened, and it took a catastrophic event to materialize," said Saxton, 65, during a recent exit-interview with The Times. This is the congressman's final term before he retires.

Resting back in a modest, brown leather chair at his campaign office in Mount Holly, Saxton paused for just a moment and folded his hands together.

"It was 1987," he said, "when I traveled to Israel for a second time."

Before the airplane boarded for departure, Saxton said, he stopped in an airport kiosk and picked up a magazine, the cover of which read, "Hamas Emerges."

At the time, the greenhorn congressman had little knowledge of Hamas, officially known as Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya or the "Islamic Resistance Movement."

The Palestinian Sunni terrorist organization had just formed, and although few had heard of it -- including Saxton -- he knew it was a threat the United States should keep under a close watch. He spent time that week with the Israeli armed forces to learn more.

"By the time I got home, I was convinced Hamas was engaged in terrorism and unconventional types of warfare," Saxton said. "I knew it was a threat not only to Israel, but to the Middle East and the rest of the world."

But no one else took it so seriously.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Saxton formed and chaired a task force with the mission to implement change in Congress to develop the capacity to deal with the new threat. He worked until 2001 to get his congressional peers to truly understand the danger of Hamas.

Still, few listened.

"Nobody paid attention to it, not until the September 11th terrorist attacks. If I could change anything, it would be that," Saxton said. "We could've had a head start on this issue, but most didn't see the need to deal with something occurring in another part of the world. I guess the collective thought was it couldn't happen here."

A Military Mission
"Under the radar" is one term that can describe Saxton's work.

You don't often see his name splashed across newspaper headlines, and you'll be hard-pressed to find him looking for a soap box or his 15 minutes in the spotlight.

Instead, the congressman has spent his tenure focusing on the people he serves in the 3rd District, extending from the Delaware River in Burlington County to the Atlantic seashore in Ocean County.

"It feels pretty good; we've accomplished a lot of things for New Jersey," Saxton said.

Over time, Saxton admits he developed a forte for certain initiatives, particularly the armed services.

New Jersey has three major military bases that employ thousands of people: McGuire Air Force Base and Fort Dix in Burlington County and the Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station.

The livelihood of these bases has been threatened over the last two decades.

Most have faced abolishment under the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) initiative, which has shut down 350 military bases nationwide since 1989.

Saxton was approached in the late '80s by Richard Keith "Dick" Armey, the spearhead of the BRAC initiative.

"He decided we needed a new process to close bases and he solicited my support," Saxton said. "I told him, 'Dick, I've got three bases in my district. That's not good politics.'"

Saxton was assured Fort Dix would never be touched, so he signed off on Armey's proposal.

Soon after, Saxton saw the list of bases that would be closed. Fort Dix was at the top.

"I gasped. I didn't quite know how to react," Saxton said. "It took a few days to regroup. I called together a variety of people with military experience and we went to Fort Dix. It became clear we had a lot of work to do, but it was also clear we could be involved."

After holding numerous public hearings and arguing why Fort Dix should be taken off the BRAC list, Saxton won his battle. Fort Dix was to be saved.

In 1991, Fort Dix was again put on a list to operate under "semi-active status." The fight to keep Fort Dix alive rekindled once more.

"We had to go through the process all over again, but it was worth it," Saxton said. "Today, Fort Dix is the biggest and most active training reserve, and it's part of New Jersey's mega base."

The first of its kind in the United States, the "mega base" was formed in 2005 with Saxton's help. The initiative -- to be completed by 2010 -- merges New Jersey's three neighboring bases to cut costs and maintain efficiency.

The Federal Correctional Institution, a low security facility for male inmates in the military, is also housed there in addition to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Veterans Health Administration.

"It occurred to me there were duplicative functions the bases were carrying out independently, when they could be together," Saxton said. "Does each base have to have its own sanitation and sewer system? Is there a way to mutually deal with solid waste and maintenance crews?"

And the vision for the mega base was formed.

"Not only did we save the 17,000 jobs after repeated attempts by the Department of Defense to close them, but we now have a unique joint base that has a wonderful future," Saxton said. "It's something I am very proud of."

Saxton also takes pride in helping to bring the battleship USS New Jersey back home.

The New Jersey was launched in December 1942, a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1999, the ship was decommissioned at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash.

After the ship was restored, Saxton successfully fought to have it brought to Camden. The battleship is now the namesake of a museum and memorial there, and sees thousands of visitors each year.

Keeping the beach at bay
Republicans and environmental restoration hasn't always translated into a meaningful relationship.

But Saxton has spent 15 years developing that kinship with Long Beach Township in Ocean County.

Nor'easters pummeled the region in November 1991 and again in February 1992. Both storms severely damaged the shoreline and threatened hundreds of homes.

"Beaches were scoured away, the dune lines led to 4- to 12-foot cliffs instead of beach," Saxton said. "The houses along the Shore were threatened, and so was the area's tourism."

In order to get funding for the Beach Replenishment Project, Saxton had to get the beach "engineered," -- an analysis process that took eight years and $500,000. In 2001, the township became eligible to have sand pumped in from offshore.

A $71 million renourishment effort involving the Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers, the project is close to nearing fruition.

"It's a good thing for the homeowners, people vacationing and the economy of Ocean County," Saxton said.

In Ocean County, Saxton also helped get funding for the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, a 40,000-acre parcel that protects a large portion of southern New Jersey Coastal Habitats and tidal wetlands.

He also scored funds for the Franklin Parker Preserve in Burlington County, a 9,400-acre habitat to more than 50 rare, threatened or endangered species.

"I recognized early that there's lots of things we can do to degrade the quality of life, and that's by degrading the quality of the environment," Saxton said. "New Jersey needs clean air, clean water and a clean environment."

Plenty of Issues to Tackle

In his business, you have to be a quick learner.

"Every day, every week, there is another issue," Saxton said.

To name a few, the seasoned politician has tackled matters ranging from the national and local economy to the environment and armed services.

Over the past five years, Saxton initiated a campaign to pump $42 million in annual Medicare reimbursements to South Jersey hospitals.

He considers himself a man of the people; someone who never lost touch with his constituents.

But in order to win battles, he says you have to first know what you're talking about.

"It is like being an expert on many different issues," he chuckled. "It's knowing exactly how something works. And even if you know that, it doesn't always work out in your favor."

As his political journey winds down, Saxton -- a native of Nicholson, Pa., and former school teacher -- looks forward to spending time with his three grandchildren and venturing out on his sailboat.

He's proud of his past, and looks forward to the free time.

But he also has hope for the future -- hope that "business as usual" will change.

"One of my first experiences in politics was surprising," Saxton said, "but I don't think it's the same way now."

When Saxton came on board, he said, Republicans and Democrats stood on opposite sides of the fence on many issues, but they certainly were not adversaries.

For years, Saxton said, he was surprised how hard he fought against his political peers, but at the end of the day, he was still friends with those he argued so fervently against.

"It occurred to me that Democrats and Republicans don't have to be enemies. We can work together for a common good, and most times we did," Saxton said. "Today, that ability to work together in Congress on a bipartisan basis has been diminished."

Saxton's bipartisan nature is what earned him the Jefferson-Lincoln Award this year from the Panetta Institute. The honor is given to people who have demonstrated independence of judgment and dedication to governance, while protecting the nation's principles of democracy.

"It's very encouraging," Saxton said. "There's people out there who recognize the necessity of working together. My hope is more of our politicians will also realize that in the future."

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