U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan took the American Legion convention stage in Charlotte minutes after President Barack Obama left it Tuesday, chiding his administration for problems afflicting the nation’s veterans.
Hagan, a Democrat who is locked in one of the nation’s tightest Senate races, said she told the president that “promises alone aren’t going to get it done” in righting the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The Obama administration must understand that we need a complete change in culture at the VA,” she said. The administration, she added, “has a long road ahead to restore the faith and trust of our veterans.”
As she fights for a second term, Hagan courts a powerful voting bloc in what she calls the nation’s most military-friendly state: North Carolina’s 770,000 veterans and 116,000 active-duty troops.
Obama’s appearance Tuesday put her within uneasy reach of a lame-duck president of whom, a July poll showed, two-thirds of veterans disapprove.
While they didn’t share the stage at the Charlotte Convention Center, Hagan warmly greeted the president when he touched down at the city’s airport.
Hagan, a member of the Senate’s Armed Services Committee, touted her family’s military roots: Her husband is a Vietnam veteran; her father and brother served in the Navy; her father-in-law was a Marine Corps general, and two nephews are on active duty.
She took credit for helping enact legislation that gained health care for Marine families exposed for decades to toxic chemicals in the water at Camp Lejeune.
Hagan said she personally prodded Obama for expanded medical space, reducing wait times, at the VA facilities in Fayetteville and Jacksonville after leases became entangled in bureaucracy. The leases now appear likely to be approved, she said.
“This is just one symptom of a much larger problem – of a system that is designed to delay and deny rather than to move quickly and nimbly to better serve our veterans,” she said. “This has to change.”
Hagan took an oblique shot at her Senate opponent, N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Huntersville Republican, saying she was “deeply disappointed” that state legislators have tried to make it easier for payday lenders.
Tillis and most other Republicans supported a bill that would have raised interest rates on many consumer loans. Military officials accused the industry of targeting service members.
Tillis’ campaign responded by tying Hagan to Obama, who lost North Carolina in his 2012 re-election. The two have “broken their promises to our veterans,” the campaign said, and have allowed problems at the VA to worsen.
“Hagan has rubber-stamped President Obama’s reckless policies, which have weakened us at home and emboldened our enemies abroad, creating one crisis after another,” Tillis said in a statement. “Leading from behind and denying responsibility won’t erase their failures over the last six years.”
N.C. Republican Party Chairman Claude Pope Jr. added that Hagan supported “Obama’s disastrous liberal economic policies and has failed to push the president on finding solutions for our veterans. Voters will see right through this charade in November.”
The VA backlog has been a problem for years and has been acute in North Carolina, with its large veteran population. It was an issue in Hagan’s 2008 campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Last December, before the firestorm of reports that led to his resignation, Eric Shinseki, then-secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, responded to Hagan by promising to relieve the backlog that had reached 11,000 patients at the Winston-Salem VA clinic.
The ranking Republican on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Richard Burr of North Carolina, called bipartisan legislation Obama signed this month “a first step, a small step” toward rectifying the VA’s problems.
As evidence of delays in medical care at Veterans Affairs facilities surfaced, the American Legion had pressed Obama to replace Shinseki. The Senate unanimously confirmed his replacement, Robert McDonald, on July 29.
Without the Legion’s support for the changes, Burr told the convention, “We would not have a new secretary, and we wouldn’t have the reforms that are on the table.”