SID SALTER: Mabus makes reports’ short list to succeed Gates at Defense

With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates now back from a final tour of operations in Iraq, the focus on Capitol Hill now turns to President Obama’s choice of Gates’ successor. After serving as defense secretary in the administrations of both Obama and former President George W. Bush, Gates is expected to retire this summer.
Current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, 62, the former Mississippi governor and Clinton administration ambassador to Saudi Arabia, has been named by more than a dozen national news and defense industry media organizations as a leading contender to succeed Gates when he steps down.
Former California Democratic congressman, Clinton administration White House chief of staff and current Central Intelligence Agency District Leon Panetta is also considered a prospect to succeed Gates, as is U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I. But with Panetta set to turn 73 in June, political and media speculation that Mabus is gaining momentum as a likely successor to Gates is growing.
After a fiery career as a crusading state auditor, Mabus served as Mississippi’s governor from 1988 to 1992. He served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1994 to 1996.
Despite the Clinton connection, Mabus was an early supporter of Obama. After Mabus endorsed Obama in the spring of 2007, he said the Obama campaign sent him over the next year to speak in 24 states at over 300 events in places in rural America “where a presidential campaign has literally never visited.”
After earning his undergraduate degree from Ole Miss, Mabus earned a graduate degree from Johns Hopkins and a law degree from Harvard. He served a two-year hitch in the Navy as a surface warfare officer in the Navy aboard the cruiser USS Little Rock – honorably discharging as a lieutenant.
With support from both of Mississippi’s Republican U.S. senators, Obama named Mabus as Navy secretary in March 2009. Obama later tapped the Harvard-educated Mabus to oversee the restoration plan for the Gulf Coast after the British Petroleum (BP) Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history.
As was the case when Mabus was being considered for his current post as Navy secretary, many Mississippians wondered aloud just why that mattered to the state Mabus once led. The fact is that defense spending in Mississippi has historically been major spending.
The numbers still reflect that despite the recession and a growing move on Capitol Hill to cut federal spending, defense spending has been a huge influence on Mississippi’s economy. How big? Take a look.
Mississippi currently has 55 defense-related manufacturers employing more than 11,000 people, according to the Mississippi Development Authority web site. That excludes military personnel and military support staff. maintains aggregate data on U.S. defense spending that chronicle such spending in Mississippi:
n Between 2000 and 2010, 2,642 Mississippi contractors won 16,959 U.S. defense contracts worth a staggering $29.1 billion.
n In 2008 alone, defense contracts in Mississippi accounted for $3.85 billion in federal spending in the state.
n That’s up from $1.4 billion in 2000.
Then, consider the some 40,000 Mississippians employed by the military and the operations of the military bases and facilities in the state – including Camp Shelby, Columbus and Keesler Air Force bases, the Meridian Naval Air Station and NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
The prospect of having a Mississippi as secretary of defense represents an opportunity to have someone in a position of the highest authority at the Pentagon who knows that Raytheon makes guidance systems in Forest and that Camp Shelby is a vital U.S. Army asset. Having a former governor serve in that position – one who knows every Mississippi community – would be an exceptional asset for the state.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at (662) 325-2506 or

Sid Salter

Click video to hear audio