Maine House Speaker and Senate candidate Sara Gideon speaks during a rally Saturday outside of the Local S6 Union Hall this summer. She won the endorsement from the union council that represents Bath Iron Works’ largest unions. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

BATH — As U.S. Senate incumbent Sen. Susan Collins and challenger Sara Gideon remain close in the polls with election day looming, defense analysts disagree over who would better support Bath Iron Works, one of the state’s largest employers.

Gideon received an endorsement in August from the Maine State Council of Machinists, which represents Local S6 and S7, the shipyard’s largest unions. Local S6 never officially endorsed either Gideon or Collins because COVID-19 gathering restrictions prohibited union officials from holding a meeting for members to vote, according to Local S6 spokesman Tim Suitter.

“We’ve taken particular notice of Sara’s support for striking members of Local S6, actions that speak volumes about her dedication to working men and women, and we stand behind Sara in her campaign and look forward to working with her in Washington,” Maine State Council of Machinists President Mark Vigliotta wrote in a statement in August.

The decision surprised analysts The Times Record interviewed, in large part because of Collins’ senior membership on the Appropriations Committee and the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, responsible for overseeing funding for the Department of Defense.

“At this point, Collins is probably the most powerful asset BIW has on Capitol Hill,” said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute, a nonprofit focused on security issues.

Thompson added that although Collins is powerful, any strength a state’s senator has going forward is dependent on who wins the presidency next month.

Sen. Susan Collins spoke with International IAM Union President Robert Martinez Jr. and Local S6 members during the strike this summer. She has been endorsed by Local S6 previously, but the union hasn’t endorse any US Senate candidate this year. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

“For example, Gideon being elected could hurt BIW if Trump is re-elected and the Senate remains in the Republicans’ hands, but if Biden wins and the Senate flips, Gideon being elected could help Bath,” Thompson said. “It’s all about where the power lies in the political system. If you’re a member of the party that controls the White House, you have some power members of the other party simply don’t have.”

In a statement Tuesday, Collins’ office wrote: “No one has been more successful than Senator Collins in delivering federal funding to support the hardworking, highly skilled employees of Bath Iron Works, who provide the Navy with the highest quality ships. … Since joining the Appropriations Committee in 2009, she has secured more than $16 billion for shipbuilding at BIW. This includes funding for three Zumwalt class destroyers and 12 Arleigh Burke destroyers.”

Other analysts said Collins has little say in things that should be most important to BIW, namely winning contracts for ships other than the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the main class of ship BIW builds.

“It’s useful to have Susan Collins on the appropriations committee, but it hasn’t helped Bath win new things,” said Craig Hooper, CEO of Themistocles Advisory Group, a Maryland-based national security advisory firm. “The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee may help you keep your production line alive, but it hasn’t helped Bath sustain the Zumwalts, or win the frigate of the Coast Guard cutter.”

In the early 2000s, the Navy ordered 32 highly advanced Zumwalt stealth destroyers, all to be built at BIW, but the number of ships was slashed repeatedly as the years and costs wore on. Ultimately, the Navy ordered just three Zumwalt-class destroyers, the last of which, the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson, is under construction.

In April, the shipyard lost a $5.58 billion contract to build up to 10 guided-missile frigates for the Navy to Italian shipbuilding company Fincantieri. Thompson said, “You can’t blame Collins for Bath not winning the frigate contract.”

“That award happened in the Department of Defense,” he said. “Congress doesn’t have control of that decision.”

Matt Caris, a Navy analyst for with Avascent Group in Washington agreed, adding Congress or a congressional committee can’t do much to aid BIW’s growth in the coming years because “it’s easier for a committee to stand in the way of something rather than ensuring a fat and happy pipeline for any one company.”

Regardless of Collins’ current seniority and position, Hooper said BIW shipbuilders have a choice to make on election day: “Either coast with Collins or try something new with Gideon who’s going to start at the bottom and need to fight.”

In a statement Tuesday, Gideon wrote: “Maine deserves a senator who will fight for Bath Iron Works and the Mainers who work there. In the Senate, I will always put the interests of Maine people first, and that means working to strengthen and protect the rights of hardworking Mainers while also ensuring that BIW continues to play a central role in our national security and build the best warships in the world for our armed forces.”

Gideon was a frequent visitor and speaker at the picket line when the Local S6, representing 4,300 of BIW’s 6,800 employees, went on strike for nine weeks this summer over disagreements over the company’s plans to continue hiring subcontractors and proposed changes to worker seniority privileges.

Suitter said both Gideon and Collins spoke before union members earlier in the year, and he suspects union membership is split over who to vote for.

“Sara Gideon was a strong advocate for the union and walked the picket line with us during the strike, but there’s a reason we’ve endorsed Susan Collins in the past,” he said. “We have a common interest in the shipyard and we’ve fostered that relationship over the years.”

He said Collins is an attractive choice for the union because “she sits on the Defense Appropriations Committee and has a lot of seniority.”

However, Gideon impressed union leaders during the strike this summer because “she stood up to BIW and that means a lot to have someone stand up to someone for us, no matter who, and call them to the carpet,” he said.

Jon Moreau and Sonnie Knapik, both shipyard employees, said they believe Collins, if re-elected, is the better option for BIW because she will continue to support the shipyard as much as possible through the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

“Sara has visited here a few times, but Susan has been around for a while and we’ve never had any problems,” added Knapik.

BIW Pipefitter Andrew Mass said he sees promise in Gideon because of the way she supported Local S6 during the strike.

BIW Spokesman David Hench declined to comment Thursday.

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