Veterans Lead Democrats’ Governor Offensive

At least half a dozen are running for the office this cycle.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam at a debate in Richmond, Va., on May 9.
AP Photo/Steve Helber
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
May 29, 2017, 3:45 p.m.

The Demo­crat­ic re­build at the state level may be done on the backs of vet­er­ans of Amer­ica’s re­cent con­flicts abroad.

Just as Re­pub­lic­ans took over the Sen­ate in 2014 with the help of vet­er­ans of the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan, Demo­crats have now lined up at least half a dozen cur­rent and former mem­bers of the mil­it­ary to run for gov­ernor.

Run­ning in states from Maine to Ari­zona, the can­did­ates could strengthen the party’s ef­fort to cut in­to the GOP’s 2-to-1 ad­vant­age in gov­ernor’s man­sions—but they have tough fights ahead in primar­ies, against in­cum­bents, and for open seats the party hasn’t held in years.

“Vet­er­ans aren’t dom­in­ated by one polit­ic­al party or the oth­er,” said Jon Soltz, the chair­man of VoteVets, a group that backs Demo­crat­ic vet­er­ans run­ning for of­fice. “What you’re see­ing is … the heightened amount of Demo­crats that are really up­set over Trump see­ing run­ning for pub­lic of­fice as a source of con­tinu­ing their ser­vice to the coun­try.”

Just one of the nine cur­rent gov­ernors who have served in the mil­it­ary is a Demo­crat. Louisi­ana Gov. John Bel Ed­wards’s back­ground as a ranger and West Point gradu­ate helped him in­tro­duce him­self to con­ser­vat­ive voters statewide in 2015 and bolstered TV ads that said his GOP op­pon­ent, then-Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, “chose pros­ti­tutes over pat­ri­ots.”

Ed­wards met earli­er this year with South Car­o­lina state Rep. James Smith, a Demo­crat con­sid­er­ing a bid next year to un­seat Gov. Henry Mc­Mas­ter, also a vet­er­an. Ed­wards me­dia con­sult­ant Jared Arse­ment said he too met with Smith to dis­cuss us­ing a mil­it­ary re­cord on the cam­paign trail.

“Any vet­er­an who’s look­ing at run­ning for gov­ernor would prob­ably do well to talk to John Bel,” Arse­ment said.

Smith, an act­ive na­tion­al guards­man who trained Afghan forces in Kanda­har, said he won’t make a gubernat­ori­al de­cision un­til the sum­mer, but he em­phas­ized in an in­ter­view that vet­er­ans bring to polit­ics an au­then­ti­city, hu­mil­ity, and “per­spect­ive that is very much in need right now.”

Demo­crats’ ef­forts to elect more vet­er­ans be­gins in next month’s Vir­gin­ia primary, when Lt. Gov. Ral­ph Northam faces off against former Rep. Tom Per­ri­ello. Northam reg­u­larly touts his ex­per­i­ence as an Army neur­o­lo­gist help­ing Gulf War vet­er­ans at Land­stuhl Re­gion­al Med­ic­al Cen­ter in Ger­many.

In an in­ter­view, Northam cited the fact that Vir­gin­ia has one of the largest vet­er­an pop­u­la­tions in the coun­try, but he also ex­pressed con­cern about fed­er­al in­vest­ment in the state’s mil­it­ary as­sets po­ten­tially at the ex­pense of spend­ing on health care and the en­vir­on­ment.

“I’m all about a strong mil­it­ary, hav­ing served in the mil­it­ary,” Northam said. “But we have to be very care­ful. Where’s the money com­ing from?”

VoteVets en­dorsed Northam in Janu­ary, days after Per­ri­ello entered the race. For next year’s races, the group has also already giv­en $2,500 to Con­nie Pil­lich, who is run­ning in the Ohio Demo­crat­ic primary. The group pre­vi­ously sup­por­ted Pil­lich’s 2014 state treas­urer bid and the con­gres­sion­al cam­paigns of Rep. Tim Walz of Min­nesota, a vet­er­an of the Army Na­tion­al Guard who is run­ning to re­place Demo­crat­ic Gov. Mark Dayton.

“When I was faced with the dein­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion of our town and watch­ing my dad have to re­in­vent him­self in his 50s—and how hard that was on my fam­ily—I knew that I needed an edu­ca­tion,” said Pil­lich, who spent part of her eight years in the Air Force in West Ber­lin dur­ing the Cold War. “And I really liked the idea of wear­ing the uni­form of my coun­try, and I was lucky that I was able to ex­change my edu­ca­tion for my ser­vice.”

Iowa state Rep. Todd Prichard and New­ton, Mas­sachu­setts May­or Setti War­ren echoed sim­il­ar themes in in­ter­views about their de­ploy­ments dur­ing the Ir­aq “surge.” War­ren, who is run­ning for the nom­in­a­tion to chal­lenge Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Charlie Baker, learned as an in­tel­li­gence spe­cial­ist that “we couldn’t af­ford not to work with one an­oth­er,” and he said the same ap­plies to over­com­ing “di­vis­ive polit­ics.”

Prichard, a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el in the Army re­serve who de­ployed to Kuwait, said fel­low vet­er­ans in the state le­gis­lature “tend to be a little bit less par­tis­an,” es­pe­cially on vet­er­ans’ care.

“In Ir­aq, we had an en­emy. They were try­ing to kill us,” Prichard said. “In here, the people on the oth­er side of the aisle, they’re not really an en­emy.”

Former Ok­lahoma At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Drew Ed­mond­son, who fought in Vi­et­nam, is also con­tend­ing for the Demo­crat­ic nom­in­a­tion to re­place Gov. Mary Fal­l­in, who can’t seek reelec­tion.

Can­did­ates ar­gued that the skills they de­veloped in the mil­it­ary can be gov­ern­ing cre­den­tials. Ari­zona Demo­crat Dav­id Gar­cia, who hopes to take on Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Doug Ducey next year, said his de­ploy­ments to the Korean Pen­in­sula and ex­per­i­ence fight­ing fires in Yel­low­stone mol­ded his “lead­er­ship style.”

“I don’t walk in a room and tell folks, ‘Hey, when I walk out of here, I’m go­ing to be the guy in charge,’” Gar­cia said. “I walk in—much like an in­fan­try­man—look­ing to see what I can do, what I can con­trib­ute.”

Demo­crat Adam Cote, a dec­or­ated com­pany com­mand­er in Afgh­anistan run­ning for an open seat in Maine, led a pla­toon that built schools and clin­ics in Mo­sul dur­ing one of the dead­li­est years of Op­er­a­tion Ir­aqi Free­dom. He said that as gov­ernor, fix­ing the state’s roads and bridges would be “one of the top pri­or­it­ies.”

“We built in­fra­struc­ture in a war­time zone,” Cote said, “and frankly I can’t wait to do that in Maine, but without get­ting shot at.”

Cor­rec­tion: Northam was a neur­o­lo­gist at Land­stuhl, not a neurosur­geon as ori­gin­ally writ­ten.

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