August 2, 2010
CHANGE OF SERVICE
Hopes for a GOP congressional majority rest in part on a crop of Afghan and Iraq War vets
JOHN J. MILLER
“I once scraped paint off the floor of this ship,” says Ilario Pantano. He stands inside a cavernous hangar within the USS Intrepid, the decommissioned aircraft carrier that sits in the Hudson River as a floating museum. The floor and walls that he knows so well are covered in a dull industrial gray. But on June 21, Pantano also finds himself surrounded by the red, white, and blue décor of a campaign fundraiser sponsored by Iraq Veterans for Congress, a political-action committee. Pantano, a Republican who fought in Fallujah, is a beneficiary: He’s running for the House of Representatives in North Carolina’s 7th district.
Yet the event was something of a homecoming for Pantano. He grew up about ten blocks away from the Intrepid, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of Manhattan. His old apartment building is visible from the flight deck. As a boy in the 1980s, Pantano belonged to a program for kids who had an interest in joining the Marines. It certainly didn’t glamorize military service. Instead, it put Pantano to work chipping paint from the carrier’s bowels.
Today, Pantano is one of the GOP’s great hopes for wresting control of the House away from the Democrats. North Carolina’s 7th district, which includes Wilmington and its environs, prefers Republican presidential candidates. John McCain took it with 52 percent and George W. Bush took it with more. Since 1996, however, the area’s voters have sent blue-dog Democrat Mike McIntyre to Washington, often with commanding majorities against token opposition. Pantano insists that he’ll deliver a different result in 2010: “When I saw that Scott Brown could win a Senate race in Massachusetts, I knew I could win here.”
The GOP is sure to gain strength in November’s mid-term elections, but ousting Nancy Pelosi as speaker of the House will require switching at least 39 seats from Democratic blue to Republican red. To meet this goal, Republicans will have to win a series of toss-up races — and they’ll be rooting hard for Pantano and a platoon of other citizen soldiers who are trying to become citizen legislators. “We’re taking off our boots and fatigues, putting on our suits and ties, and continuing to serve,” says Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who was a battalion commander in Iraq and a military trainer in Afghanistan. He’s now running for Congress as a Republican in South Florida.
Only two Republican congressmen have served in the wars of the post-9/11 period: Mike Coffman of Colorado and Duncan Hunter of California. “I believe we’re going to have double digits next year,” says Kieran Lalor of Iraq Veterans for Congress. Hopes for a GOP majority may rest on the shoulders of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are seeking office in Arizona, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, and elsewhere. Call them the Surge Republicans.
Four years ago, when President Bush’s surge in Iraq was just an idea on the minds of a few Pentagon planners, Democrats devised their own strategy for turning soldiers into politicians. In 2002 and 2004, Bush and the GOP had pounded Democratic candidates as weak on national security. So in 2006, Democrats started to recruit veterans to run for Congress. Jim Webb of Virginia, a decorated Marine who served in Vietnam, was probably their biggest catch. He went on to defeat GOP senator George Allen, a non-veteran.
In the House, Democratic congressman Rahm Emanuel of Illinois (who is now President Obama’s chief of staff) coordinated a similar effort through the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which he then chaired. About 50 veterans ran for Congress as Democrats — a higher number than the GOP put forth, which was unusual. Many were long shots who didn’t make it out of their primaries, but a handful survived, and ultimately four were elected. Each captured a seat that a Republican had held. Three came from Pennsylvania, including Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who is now running for the Senate, and Patrick Murphy, who had recently served in Iraq. Emanuel credited his non-traditional slate with gaining control of the House. “We expanded the field,” he crowed the day after the elections. Two years later, Democrats achieved more district-flipping victories with veterans in Idaho, Michigan, and Ohio.
Although Republicans nominated war hero John McCain for president in 2008, party leaders made no special effort to recruit veterans as candidates for Congress. They haven’t done it this year, either — but dozens of veterans, including a number who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan, are stepping forward on their own. “I came home from Afghanistan just in time to see the health-care bill pass Congress,” says Rocky Raczkowski, a major in the Army Reserve. “My congressman voted for it, and that frustrated me so much, I just had to run for his seat.” Raczkowski, a former majority leader in the Michigan legislature, is seeking the Republican nomination in his state’s 9th district, which was a GOP stronghold in suburban Detroit until the Democrats seized it two years ago — with Naval Reserve lieutenant commander Gary Peters. Brian Rooney, a Michigan Republican who saw action in Iraq, says the lessons he learned in the military are behind his own candidacy: “I want to make Michigan business-friendly again — and the attitude in the Marines is that if you want something done right, you do it yourself.” He’s running in the 7th district.
Veterans may be ideally positioned for the anti-incumbent politics of 2010. “Voters don’t trust candidates on either side of the aisle,” says Justin Bernier, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer who was stationed in Kabul and is now a candidate in Connecticut’s 5th district. “At the same time, voters believe they can trust veterans because they know veterans have volunteered for a mission — they’ve sacrificed for their country.” Huge majorities of Americans equate military service with patriotism, as Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg of the American Enterprise Institute point out in a June 30 polling analysis. Candidates who are veterans gain a slight edge over opponents who aren’t.
If North Carolina’s Pantano wins in November, he will owe his victory in large measure to his identity as a Marine. Pantano’s story is simply remarkable. After attending an expensive New York prep school on scholarship, he astonished his teachers and classmates by deciding to enlist in the Marines rather than go to college. He went to sniper school and took part in the first Gulf War. At the end of his four years in 1993, he enrolled at New York University. After graduation, Pantano took a job at Goldman Sachs and later started his own consulting business. His future looked bright. On the morning of 9/11, however, Pantano was on the streets of Manhattan when the terrorists struck. “I saw the Towers burn,” he says. “I knew we were at war.” Hours later, he went to a barber shop and ordered a “high and tight” — i.e., a military buzz cut. Then, at the age of 30, he rejoined the Marines. This time he went to officer school and received a commission as a second lieutenant.
In 2004, Pantano was fighting insurgents in Iraq. Near the town of Mahmudiyah, he shot two men. One of the soldiers in the platoon, possibly disgruntled because Pantano had demoted him, accused his superior officer of murder. The case drew national attention, and Pantano suffered through an agonizing year of accusation and investigation. But all of the charges against him eventually were dropped. Pantano received his second honorable discharge from the Marines and wrote Warlord, a book about his experiences. Last year, living in North Carolina — his family had settled there because of Camp Lejeune — Pantano became upset when Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to investigate CIA operatives. “That was the tipping point for me,” he says. He started to think seriously about running for Congress. On May 4, he became the 7th district’s GOP nominee.
The backgrounds of other Republican veterans aren’t as colorful — and their platforms don’t necessarily emphasize their service overseas. In many ways, they sound like conventional right-of-center candidates who happen to have worn their country’s uniform. “My two main issues are private-sector job creation and our country’s fiscal health,” says Tim Griffin, the GOP candidate in the 2nd district of Arkansas as well as a major in the Army Reserve who served in Iraq. In Nevada’s 3rd district, Army Reserve doctor Joe Heck, who returned from Iraq after a tour in 2008, decided to run because of the economy. “I was struggling to keep my business afloat,” he says. “The stimulus sure wasn’t doing anything.” Steve Stivers, an Ohio Army National Guard lieutenant colonel who spent a year in Kuwait and Iraq, connects the dots between deficits and defense: “We’re spending ourselves into oblivion, and that’s a national-security threat. Just look at Greece. It has no ability to provide for a military because its economy is a wreck.” He’s the GOP nominee in Ohio’s 15th district.
Several political-action committees have emerged to help these candidates. Iraq Veterans for Congress and Combat Veterans for Congress have endorsed dozens of candidates. Both are explicitly conservative. Another group, Vets for Freedom, has targeted ten races that feature veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (All are Republicans, but in the past, Vets for Freedom has backed Democratic congressman Jim Marshall of Georgia as well as the independent candidacy of Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman.) The efforts of these organizations often overlap, but not always. In Arizona’s 8th district, they’ve split between Jesse Kelly, a 6’8″ Marine combat veteran, and Jonathan Paton, an Army intelligence officer. Both men served in Iraq and now seek the GOP nomination in a primary scheduled for August 24. The winner will face second-term Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in a border region that both Bush and McCain carried. “The difference between fighting insurgents in Iraq and running for Congress is that when you run for Congress, the bullets come from all sides,” jokes Kelly.
Veterans who become politicians can expect to face intense scrutiny. Already this year, two Senate candidates — Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois — have come under fire for embellishing their military records. Criticizing veterans is risky, but the tactic has paid off handsomely in the past. Just ask former Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry. In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth questioned his performance as a naval officer in Vietnam and made a scandal of his anti-war activism at home. He never recovered from these attacks.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of veterans on the campaign trail, they are genuine assets in Congress. “It’s difficult for those who haven’t served to understand military culture — you can understand it intellectually, but it’s different when you’ve lived it,” says John Kline, a congressman from Minnesota whose quarter century of service in the Marines spanned from Vietnam to Somalia. This isn’t a partisan talking point for Republican candidates. “Being a veteran gives an added perspective as Congress evaluates strategies and provides resources,” says John Boccieri, a first-term Democratic congressman from Ohio who has flown planes in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the Air Force Reserve. His Army-vet colleague Walt Minnick, an Idaho Democrat, points to a recent House vote to fund a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet. “I was a quartermaster, so I know when we’re throwing money away,” he says. “Voting for a military project doesn’t always strengthen the military. We also need to make balanced, cost-efficient decisions. If we had a Congress with more veterans in both parties, that vote might have the other way.”
Today, however, the number of veterans in Congress has hit a historic low. Just 22 percent of senators and House members have worn their county’s uniform, according to the Military Officers Association of America. That’s down from about 70 percent in the 1970s. “We need more veterans in Congress because they have reference points that others lack,” says Mike Coffman, a first-term Republican who resigned as Colorado’s treasurer in 2005 to join the Marines. “I was involved in counterinsurgency operations in Anbar, so I know how hard it is to convince people that they’ll have our support if they put their lives on the line — and I know how destructive the current administration has been in putting out a deadline for withdrawal in Afghanistan.”
The candidates in the GOP’s band of brothers now hope to force a withdrawal of their own — a hasty retreat of Democrats on Election Day.