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'Cross-Partisan' Group, With Honor, Aims To Support Veteran Candidates For Congress


Tomorrow is Veterans Day. That means parades and politics. In last year's election, both Democratic and Republican candidates leaned on veterans' endorsements. At the same time, they criticized each other for using veterans as props. A new political action committee wants vets to be the candidates for whichever party. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports on the new push to get vets to run for office.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: The draft meant Congress used to be full of veterans. During World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the number of vets in Congress peaked in the late '60s, early '70s at 75 percent in the House and 81 percent in the Senate. Today it's only 20 percent veterans in the Senate and 19 percent in the House.

RYE BARCOTT: We don't think it's a coincidence that Congress is so dysfunctional in part because of that precipitous decline of veterans that are serving.

LAWRENCE: Rye Barcott is an Iraq War veteran. The we he's talking about is a political action committee launched yesterday called With Honor, which he says is cross-partisan.

BARCOTT: We're not focused on policy. We're focused on character because we think that that's where - that's the bedrock. To really fix this, you have to have people that can (laughter) - that can go to battle on the floor and then, you know, meet afterwards and still have a beer.

LAWRENCE: Barcott says a small-but-growing group of what he calls next-generation veterans are setting a different tone in Congress. U.S. representative Mike Gallagher, a first-term Wisconsin Republican, is also an Iraq vet. He says veterans can often find common ground on national security and foreign policy because they've seen what it looks like down-range.

MIKE GALLAGHER: We're not going to agree on everything, but we're at last going to try and elevate the tone of the debate, be a little more civil to each other. And I think we need more of that. And you know, even where I disagree with my friends, you know, I don't go home every night thinking they want to destroy the country.

LAWRENCE: Gallagher points to fellow House freshman Jimmy Panetta, a California Democrat, as an example. Panetta served in Afghanistan, and he, too, has made a point of sponsoring bipartisan bills.

GALLAGHER: And they're willing to basically cross party lines. We need people that understand that this is not a Democrat thing. It's not a Republican thing. This is an American thing. And let me tell you. The veterans that I work with understand that.

LAWRENCE: And it bears mentioning that Panetta is the son of Democratic institution Leon Panetta. So for him, name recognition wasn't much of a problem. For most new vets, it will be. And the cost of a campaign has skyrocketed in recent years, which is where the political action committee With Honor comes in. Rye Barcott runs a clean energy investment firm. He says he's planning to raise $30 million to fund vet candidates from both parties.

BARCOTT: One of the beauties of the military is its can-do attitude. And we can do this. America can do this. We can function. We can have a Congress that can function. We've done it in the past. And that matters. It matters for everyday Americans, many of whom are struggling.

LAWRENCE: Barcott says there are already 100 vets running for the House alone in 2018. Now, he admits there are plenty of vet politicians who are partisan to a fault. The With Honor super PAC will select a few dozen candidates to sponsor so long as they take a pledge of integrity, civility and cross-partisan action. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEOTIC'S "NAV") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.
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