Joe's Road Trip 2012

Road Trip 2012, Day 3/4: Some Good Candidates

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Virginia Beach, Va.

Well, I have a lot of writing to catch up on after the weekend. There will be (at least) three separate posts. One about several meetings I’ve had with Democrats in North Carolina and Virginia–after six months of hanging out with Republicans during the primaries, I figured it was time to listen to some Dems. Another, a conversation I had with some recovering addicts in Richmond last night–they’re not the sort of people who usually respond to a crowd-sourced road trip but, happily, the director of their program did. But first, I’d like to write about three very good congressional candidates I’ve met in the past few days, two Democrats and a Republican, all of whom have military backgrounds. I’ll do them in chronological order:

Steve Wilkins–is a Democrat running in North Carolina’s 2nd District. He is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, a specialist in logistics who served as an advisor to General David Petraeus when he commanded the 101st airborne in Mosul, during the first year of the Iraq war. I would say that doing logistics for Petraeus is a pretty powerful credential when it comes to getting things done, and he isn’t shy when it comes to talking about the impact of his military service on his worldview, “I’ve met the enemy and it’s not us, although you wouldn’t know that from the political debate going on in Washington,” he told me. “I see North Carolina as a moderate, middle-of-the-road state. In the military, you had to know how to get along and get things done–and that’s what I’d like to do in Congress. I’ve had experience working with people who have different ideas from mine and I want to bring a pragmatic approach to government.”

Steve Wilkins

Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

His opponent is a former nurse named Renee Ellmers, who was a Tea Party favorite when she ran in 2010, mostly because of her opposition to Obamacare. Wilkins is for it, with caveats. In a state where a recent gay marriage referendum left both side seething, he says, “Social issues are not a big deal to me. I’m more interested in building the economy, creating a bigger pie.” I asked him about the Republican belief that federal regulations are choking off job growth, “I’m a member of the Chamber of Commerce board here and we don’t spend much time talking about federal regulations. We talk about local problems–we’ve got a water problem–and transportation. It’d be nice if the Congress could pass that transportation bill.”

If he’s elected, Wilkins said that one thing he’d like to work on is foreign policy, “For the past 25 years, Congress has abdicated its war-fighting powers. It’s become too easy for Presidents to take us to war. I believe in the separation of powers,” he said, and Congress–with its Constitutional mandate to declare war when necessary–has the ultimate vote in that decision.

John Douglass–has a resume that would lead to you to think he’s a Republican: he’s a retired Air Force general, a military staffer on Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, a former Under Secretary of the Navy, a military intelligence and technology expert. But he’s a Democrat, running in Virginia’s 5th district. We met at a strawberry social, just outside of Charlottesville. “I’m strongly influenced by what I saw in the Reagan White House as we began to negotiate the end of the Cold War. I believe that it’s now time–and we now have the technology–to focus on domestic defense rather than overseas operations. We need to concentrate more on our ports and borders. I mean, if the druggies can get stuff through, why can’t terrorists? We need to concentrate more technology on our borders–mostly for national security purposes, to be sure our security isn’t breeched, but I think we would also see big reductions in the amount of drugs and illegals crossing the border.”

John Douglass

Andrew Hinderaker for TIME

I asked him why he was a Democrat. “I’m just too progressive on social issues,” he said. “I just think everybody should get a fair shot at the dream, but we seem to be drifting away from that.” He believes in equal rights for all, including homosexuals. As we talked, it became apparent that General Douglass was in favor of more money for education, especially special ed (he has an autistic child), strong environmental regulation (he’s opposed to opening a uranium mine in the district) and universal health care. “I sometimes have to defend the President’s position on healthcare to veterans and I tell them, ‘Look, we military people take our health care really seriously. How would you feel if some government guy came in and said, “I’m gonna take away your health care, give you a voucher instead that you can use to buy private insurance. Oh, and by the way, I can’t guarantee that the insurance companies are going to cover the lingering effects of some of the wounds you’ve suffered.” Well, that’s what the Republicans are proposing.'”

Both Wilkins and Douglass are running in swingy districts that feature first-term Republicans, elected in the 2010 tsunami. Both have uphill, but not impossible, fights. And both feature that distinctive military, mission-oriented, can-do attitude: “We instead of me,” as Wilkins told me.

I’ll deal with the third candidate, Republican Scott Rigell, in a separate post.