Politics & Government

Veterans issues top U.S. Senate race agenda

Veterans issues will highlight President Barack Obama’s speech to the American Legion Convention in Charlotte Tuesday. And, for the moment, they’ll top the agenda of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race.

Even before Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan follows Obama to the stage of the Charlotte Convention Center, she sought to distance herself from his handling of problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The Obama administration has not yet done enough to earn the lasting trust of our veterans and implement real and permanent reforms at the VA,” she said shortly after his trip was announced.

A spokesman for Republican Thom Tillis called that “election-year rhetoric” that was “too little, too late.”

Obama will tout steps his administration has taken to address the VA crisis, including signing new legislation this month and replacing veterans secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned in May.

“What the speech will be focused on will be making sure that we’re doing everything that we promised to keep our commitment to America’s veterans,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Monday.

Beyond the more than 9,000 veterans at the Legion convention, both Obama and Hagan will have larger audiences in mind. There are millions of veterans around the country and 770,000 in North Carolina, along with 116,000 active-duty personnel.

Backlog long an issue

This month a group called the Concerned Veterans for America – funded by the conservative Koch brothers – launched a $1.6 million campaign with TV ads taking Hagan to task over problems at the VA.

The ad features a clip from her 2008 campaign against Republican Elizabeth Dole in which she promised to “do better” for veterans.

“She knew about problems, and under her watch things got worse,” the ad says.

But Hagan, a member of the Armed Services Committee, has criticized the VA before. The wife of a Vietnam veteran and daughter-in-law of a Marine general, she complained about the VA backlog when she ran for office in 2008.

Neither Hagan or Tillis could be reached. But her campaign defended her record of helping veterans.

Last December, before the firestorm of reports that led to his resignation, Shinseki responded to Hagan’s prodding, promising to relieve the backlog that had reached 11,000 at the Winston-Salem VA clinic.

She also worked to restore veterans’ pension cuts and to resolve the problem of Camp Lejeune’s tainted drinking water, found to be carcinogenic.

In 2012, Obama signed a law to provide medical care for those affected. Jerry Ensminger, a retired drill sergeant who blames the water for the death from cancer of his 9-year-old daughter, praises Hagan’s help.

“If she wouldn’t have stepped out the way she did I don’t think we would have got (a bill),” he said Monday.

Dueling records

But Republicans say Hagan didn’t do enough on the VA issue. And they criticize her relative lateness in calling for Shinseki’s resignation. She joined the calls in May, after Tillis and others had.

Tillis campaign spokesman Daniel Keylin said Tillis “would have held President Obama to his promises over the last six years.”

“As a U.S. Senator, Thom Tillis will pressure the Obama administration and hold them accountable for implementing key reforms,” Keylin said. “(Hagan) has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to hold the Obama administration accountable for its failures.”

Hagan’s campaign pointed to Tillis’ record as speaker of the N.C. House.

In 2011, Tillis and most other Republicans supported a bill that would have hiked interest rates on many consumer loans. Military officials accused the industry of targeting service members. Even a spokesman for the Defense secretary weighed in against it.

And Hagan’s campaign pointed to a study that said the state’s decision to not extend Medicaid coverage denied coverage to 23,000 N.C. veterans.

“Kay is taking real action for North Carolina veterans,” said spokeswoman Sadie Weiner. “All we’ve seen from Speaker Tillis is a record that hurts North Carolina veterans and military families. ”

At the Legion convention, Obama can expect to find an audience looking for answers to lingering problems.

“I’m going to be very interested in what he has to say about the VA situation and the steps he’s taking,” said Al Richards, a 68-year-old Legionnaire from Wisconsin.

“He’s had six years to try to clean things up, and it seems like nothing happens unless it becomes a national incident.”

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