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Soldiers' new battles: fighting for votes

Many don't have the experience or the money. What they do have is the will for change.

By BRADY DENNIS
Published June 19, 2006


OCALA - He's a 33-year-old Democrat with no political experience, a Republican wife and a college sophomore running his campaign.

And on this Thursday afternoon, he's working the crowd - two dozen silver-haired seniors - inside the Spanish Oaks community center. His aunt, who lives in the neighborhood, organized the gathering and even brought cake.

Outside, barrel-chested retirees sun themselves while grandchildren splash in the pool. Inside, a burgeoning brand of political campaign is taking shape - the soldier turned candidate.

"My name is James Walker, and I'm the Democratic candidate for state House District 24," he tells the sparse audience. "This journey, for me, started almost five years ago."

He tells them about watching the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on television and how he cried and prayed that day. He tells them about his decision to enlist in the Army and about the year he spent in Iraq with the 101st Airborne.

He tells them about the clear, starry night in the Iraqi desert when he made a decision that changed his life. That night, he says, "I made a promise to come back and make Marion County a better place."

More and more soldiers have returned from the Middle East with similar desert dreams. They have left behind the war and taken to the stump, trading one kind of battle for another.

***

The first soldier-candidate from the Iraq War to garner widespread national attention was Democrat Paul Hackett of Ohio. The Marine reservist, who spent seven months as a civil affairs officer in Iraq, nearly won a Congressional seat last year in a heavily Republican district.

Since then, the ranks have continued to grow.

At least 10 veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have announced bids for Congress this year, almost all of them Democrats and political newcomers.

In Illinois, 38-year-old Tammy Duckworth, an Army National Guard pilot who lost both legs when a grenade hit her Black Hawk helicopter in 2004, told people her wounds inspired her decision. She's seeking the Congressional seat vacated by Republican Henry Hyde.

In Pennsylvania, 32-year-old Patrick Murphy, a lawyer and Army paratrooper who was awarded the Bronze Star, said his Iraq war experience changed him and motivated him.

Such campaigns don't end with Congress.

As the war and its controversies march on, veterans have begun to run not only on the national level but also in state and local races, from Lancaster, Pa., to Grand Forks, N.D.

Iraq war vets are serving as campaign managers and running mates. They are vying for seats on city councils and county commissions. They are seeking spots as state senators and state representatives.

And often they run races differently from their counterparts on the national level, who consistently emphasize their experience in Iraq.

Those seeking office on smaller stages have found that, while their military service gives them credibility, voters care less about war and more about potholes and urban sprawl.

"People are worried about health insurance. They're worried about their property taxes, their homes," says Michael Scionti, 39, a Tampa Democrat running for the state Legislature. The former prosecutor and Army reservist spent months helping rebuild Iraq's justice system. "They're concerned about their families and how they're going pay their next bill.

"That's what's affecting people's lives."

Knocking on doors and talking at community centers has taught James Walker the same lesson.

***

"I'm trying out a new speech today," Walker tells the retirees at Spanish Oaks.

Most everything he tries these days feels new and strange. He knows how to ride out a Scud missile attack. He knows how to march in formation. He knows how to clean a rifle.

But like many political newcomers, he still fights nerves when speaking in public. He finds talking about himself a challenge. He doesn't like asking for money.

He also faces a problem common among soldier-candidates: He's challenging a Republican incumbent in a heavily Republican district. In fact, many of his own family members are Republicans. His opponent, Dennis Baxley, ran unopposed in 2004 and won the 2002 election with 76.6 percent of the vote.

Through March, state records show, Walker had raised $2,364.65, all from individual contributors. Meanwhile, Baxley had raised $92,048.09. Many of his contributions came from insurance companies, development groups, law firms, energy companies and various political action committees.

Walker, now finance director at a domestic violence center, knows how steep a climb he faces.

"Being a political nobody, it's been tough to meet the connected local people," he says. "Seems like a lot of Democrats here are pretty beaten down."

Even so, he says, he felt obligated to run. A former Republican, he switched parties after returning from Iraq. He says the war, which he calls "an absolute mess," altered his perspective.

"Being in that kind of situation just totally changes the way you see the world," Walker says. "I couldn't take things for granted anymore."

And so he tries to bring change.

He tells the seniors at Spanish Oaks that he won't take special interest money - "I'm not going to sell my soul to get elected," he says. He rails against developers and calls Baxley "a rubber stamp" for the Bush administration. He talks about teacher retention and about affordable housing and health care.

The new speech lasts barely five minutes. The retirees applaud and sign petitions supporting him.

***

Wars have long produced politicians and even presidents, including former Presidents George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, John F. Kennedy and George Bush.

But not since World War II have soldiers been welcomed back so warmly from the front lines. After Vietnam, many troops returned home to find themselves labeled war criminals and baby killers. Not so today.

"Even as this war becomes increasingly unpopular, the warriors themselves aren't unpopular," said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. "There's tremendous gratitude."

Loomis said no one reason explains why nearly all soldier-candidates are Democrats. Frustration with the administration plays a part. Also, many incumbents across the country are Republicans, so "that's where the opportunities are."

Still, Loomis said, soldiers who run as Democrats have a built-in advantage over others in their party.

"Veteran status is a great way of assuaging some of the doubts voters might have about Democrats," Loomis said. "It demonstrates that, 'I'm a patriotic American ... I'm not one of those weird Democrats.' They're not Howard Dean or whatever."

Or, as Walker puts it:

"Everybody loves a vet. It gives me a certain level of credibility that I wouldn't have had."

But the good news ends there, according to Loomis: Veteran status carries a candidate only so far.

"My guess is, very few of these people are going to be successful. Incumbents by and large have incredible advantages," he said. "One of the things you have to demonstrate to your constituents is that you're qualified.

"If they don't think you're qualified, you're dead."

***

Qualified or not, Walker long ago vowed to put in the sweat a legislative race demands.

After his speech at Spanish Oaks, he sticks around to shake a few hands and answer a few questions. But he doesn't linger long.

He wants to make campaign calls and visit local businesses before taking his son to football practice. The days disappear quickly when you work a full-time job, run a campaign, help raise four children and still have to mow the yard.

But before he slips away, a mild-mannered, 84-year-old woman hands him a check for $100. Walker kisses her on the cheek.

"Thank you very much," he says. "Every little bit helps."

His grandmother smiles and hugs him goodbye.

Brady Dennis can be reached at 813 226-3386 or dennis@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 19, 2006, 04:56:02]


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