From Citizen Soldiers to Citizen Legislators

Posted May 29, 2009 at 1:45pm

In a Feb. 12 column, Stuart Rothenberg, Roll Call’s election expert, explained the “dread— that he felt before meeting with an Iraq veteran running for Congress. He wrote, “Another Iraq War veteran running for Congress? Oh, brother. Given the track records of veterans who have nothing else on their résumés, I wasn’t optimistic.—

We expect a reflexive dismissal of the value of military service to appear in Department of Homeland Security reports, not in a “nonpartisan analysis of American politics and elections.—

But it has been clear for years that most “analysis— of House races involves looking at Federal Election Commission fundraising totals and ensuring that candidates fit the narrow template that the pundits have developed for House candidates.

Rothenberg’s analysis of Iraq vet candidates is equally superficial and couldn’t be more wrong.

Veterans have already demonstrated selfless service to country, a credential sorely missing in Washington, D.C. The current generation of veterans is pure volunteer. They joined up when there was no draft, when military service was the exception rather than the rule as it was in previous generations. Many Iraq vet candidates enlisted after 9/11, knowing combat was inevitable. And each candidate led troops in the most arduous of conditions.

Moreover, Rothenberg is incorrect when he says military service is the only thing on the résumés of Iraq vets running for Congress.

Consider these Iraq vet candidates running as Republicans in 2010:

• Will Breazeale: a Boeing 737 airline pilot (North Carolina’s 7th)

• Kevin Calvey: an attorney who left his seat as a state Representative to serve in the Army Judge Advocate General Corps (Oklahoma’s 5th)

• Wayne Mosley: an orthopedic surgeon with a master’s degree in business administration in negotiations (Georgia’s 12th)

• Lee Zeldin: an attorney for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who now runs his own law firm (New York’s 1st)

• Vaughn Ward: a CIA operations officer and Senate legislative aide (Idaho’s 1st)

• Bill Russell: a retired Army officer and Airborne Ranger who worked his way up from private to lieutenant colonel and helped lead 9/11 rescue efforts at the Pentagon (Pennsylvania’s 12th)

• Allen West: a retired Army officer, high school teacher and special adviser to the Afghan Army (Florida’s 22nd)

• Adam Kinzinger: a former McLean County Board member who joined the Air National Guard after 9/11. He saved the life of a complete stranger by fighting off a knife-wielding maniac (Illinois’ 11th)

When you compare these citizen soldiers seeking to become citizen legislators with other candidates and contrast the military pedigree of honor, service and sacrifice with the typical background of House candidates, the differences are stark.

“Strong— House candidates usually fall into three categories. First, there are the career politicians. Their primary qualifications are being well-versed in spending taxpayer money for maximum political advantage and toeing the party line so as to advance. Above all they possess a strong sense that they are entitled to represent their community in Washington because it’s their turn.

Failed New York 20th district special election candidate Jim Tedisco (R) falls squarely within this all-too-common category of candidate. His dismal loss to a 38-year-old upstart, despite a 70,000-person edge in party voter registration, indicates the tide might be turning against the ticket punchers.

Then, there are the “my politician-relative is my qualification— candidates. In 2008, the daughter of former New Jersey Gov. Christie Todd Whitman (R) sought the GOP nomination for a House seat in the Garden State.

Reporting on her campaign indicated that 30-year-old Kate Whitman was a good candidate and never questioned whether her résumé of cushy public relations gigs, common for political legacies, was adequate qualification.

Finally, there are the rich guys, qualified to serve in Congress because of the size of their wallets. The political class loves these candidates because they are cash cows for pollsters, consultants and spin-doctors.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, out of vision, energy and, evidently, self-respect, openly courted self-funders to run in 2008. The Republicans got what the political world thought was a blue chipper in multimillionaire Sandy Treadwell. He spent $7 million and only mustered 38 percent against now-Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) in the same GOP district that Tedisco would lose five months later.

Washington prognosticators’ shallow and lazy analyses affect who receives important institutional support for Congressional campaigns and dramatically affect the viability of candidates and how we get our Congress. Fortunately, voters, not political handicappers, are the ultimate arbiters of who is qualified to serve in Congress.

The perseverance and dedication that turned defeat in Iraq into victory is exactly the type of bold leadership that the country needs to overcome our current economic and national security challenges.

Kieran Michael Lalor, a Marine Corps veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is chairman of Iraq Veterans for Congress Political Action Committee. He was the Republican nominee in New York’s 19th district in 2008.