Reflected Glory?

Candidates With Military Kids Take Different Paths

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:42pm

For Tom Manion, there was no question about whether he would talk about his late son, Marine Lt. Travis Manion, in his campaign for Congress.

“It was pretty clear from the start that the only reason I was giving this consideration [was] because of the wake-up call that I got from him,” said Manion, a Republican running in Pennsylvania’s 8th district.

At the age of 26, Travis Manion was killed by sniper fire on his second tour in Iraq in April 2007. Tom Manion, who served 11 years active duty in the Marines, said he’s never had any reservations bringing up his late son in his campaign against freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (D), who also served in Iraq.

“I know there are people out there who try to turn it into a negative,” Tom Manion said. “But at the end of the day, it’s more about what I know and what our family knows and what our son knows about why I’m doing this. We’re real comfortable with it, we don’t have any problem at all.”

Manion is one of a handful of challenger and open-seat candidates — both Democrats and Republicans — who have children serving in the military. State Sen. Debbie Halvorson (D) in Illinois’ 11th district, 2006 Democratic nominee Diane Benson in the Alaska at-large race, Charlie Brown (D) in California’s 4th district, former Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D), running for Senate in Mississippi, and former Rep. Bob Schaffer (R), running for Senate in Colorado, all have immediate family who are either training for or serving in the military with the potential to go to the Middle East, if they have not already served there.

Candidates have each taken a different approach when it comes to discussing their children’s service.

In some cases these candidates, like Manion and Brown, have also served in some capacity in the military. But according to Jon Soltz, chairman of the group VoteVets.org, a political action committee that supports veterans running for political office, there’s a difference between whether the candidate has served or whether a family member is serving.

“I think they’re both relevant for different reasons,” Soltz said. “If you have a kid in the military, then you’ve got skin in the game, which is a lot more than most politicians.”

But having family members who serve does not necessarily mean the candidate understands the tactical and operational aspects of the mission, Soltz said.

Soltz said there are four Senators with children who have served in Iraq: Jim Webb (D-Va.), Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), Kit Bond (R-Mo.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). And in the House, freshman Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) has a son who is a reserve officer in the Air Force, while the son of retiring Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), Marine Captain Duncan D. Hunter (R), is running to succeed his father in Congress.

VoteVets.org has mostly endorsed Democratic, but also some Republican, veterans running for Congress. In the southeastern Pennsylvania district, the group is backing Murphy against Manion.

For Halvorson, having a stepson serving as a captain of Special Forces on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan means getting special insight into the military situation in the Middle East. She said her stepson, who recently grew a long beard to fit in better in the country, has always believed there should be more attention paid to the situation in Afghanistan.

“He was right and shared that with us,” Halvorson said.

On the campaign trail, she said she talks about about her stepson, but usually only when people express interest in hearing about him.

“I never shy away from bringing him up, but it has to fit into the context of the conversation,” Halvorson said.

Other candidates, such as Schaffer, who is running for Senate in Colorado, are more hesitant to discuss their children. Schaffer, who is running against Rep. Mark Udall (D) for the open seat being vacated by Sen. Wayne Allard (R), has two children in college in the Reserve Officer Training Corps and one child in the Air Force Academy.

None of the three children are eligible for deployment overseas right now because they are still training, but they could be some day. Still, Schaffer said he does not talk about them very often in his campaign.

“These are decisions they’ve made on their own and my campaign for the United States Senate is not a part of their college education,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer’s campaign Web site prominently features a photo of his entire family, including his five children, and only briefly mentions his three children training to be officers at the end of his online biography.

Schaffer, who did not serve in the military, said his children’s service has “certainly” affected the way he thinks about some issues but would not describe exactly how.

“My campaign stands on its own,” he said. “… It would be wrong to lead anyone to believe that my campaign is somehow a function of my children’s jobs and their jobs are somehow a function of my campaign.”

In the Pennsylvania 8th district race, Manion last month released a six-minute Web video titled “Letters from Travis,” about how his son’s service played into his decision to run for Congress.

In the first episode of what is billed as a four-part series, Manion describes how during a visit home, his son saw a sign marked “We Honor Our Fallen” at the local Democratic Party headquarters that counted the number of soldiers who had died in Iraq.

“Travis took exception to that,” Manion says in the video. “He said, ‘Dad, you know, that’s really bothering me because they’re not really honoring our guys and none of our guys that have given their lives over there would think that they’re honoring them by notching their number over there. They’re doing that as a political statement and I’ve really got a problem with that and I want to do something about it.’”

Manion presents a unique challenge to Murphy, who earned a bronze star and wrote a book about his experience as the first Iraq War veteran elected to Congress. Murphy served as a paratrooper and JAG Corps attorney in Baghdad.

Darren Barrenger, a Democratic consultant who worked for Murphy in 2006, said it’s a fine line for candidates, especially those who have not served, to talk about their children’s experience in the military.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate to make the claim that because of someone else’s experience, it then gives you more understanding than someone who has actually been in that same position themselves,” he said.

But because Manion also served in the Marines, it’s a different kind of situation. Barrenger said the successful veteran candidates do not flaunt their service.

“He’s got to be very careful, because it does rub people the wrong way if you try to ram not only your own service down people’s throats” but also someone else’s, Barrenger said. “It’s a very fine line.”