NORFOLK — The race for Virginia’s open U.S. Senate seat seems to operate on its own calendar: For the campaigns, Monday was Veterans Day.
George Allen and Timothy M. Kaine have devoted thousands of hours and hoards of campaign cash courting the state’s huge population of active and retired military members, and they continued that mission Monday: Allen (R) held a roundtable discussion with veterans in Fairfax, while Kaine (D) had a similar event with the man they’re both seeking to replace — Democratic Sen. James Webb — at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Norfolk.
Meeting with about 20 veterans, Kaine and Webb touched on issues such as looming defense cuts, backlogs in processing veterans’ health care and tuition benefits, and the difficulty of getting civilian employers to recognize the value of military training. There were no speeches, just opening remarks by Webb, Kaine and Paul Hirschbiel, a Democrat who hopes to unseat Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.).
Webb, who served in the Marines in Vietnam and later was secretary of the Navy, told the group that he understood the military life.
“I know what it’s like to have a dad deployed,” he said. “I know what it’s like to have a son deployed.”
He recalled his own efforts — thwarted by two Republican filibusters — to pass legislation meant to lengthen the time between deployments.
Webb praised Kaine as someone with the intelligence, listening skills and good sense to be an effective senator — even if he was initially reluctant to run.
“Not the most enthusiastic” was how Webb described Kaine’s reaction when the senator had called to say that he wouldn’t seek a second term and that he thought Kaine should run for his seat.
Kaine said he was reluctant, in part, because Webb’s shoes would be hard to fill. He said he hoped to be a “worthy successor” to him, but he could not be his “replacement.”
“I really want to go to the Senate and work on the issues Jim has championed,” Kaine said.
Kaine discussed his strategy for avoiding the deep, across-the-board defense and domestic spending cuts known as “sequestration.” He advocated letting the Bush tax cuts expire for incomes of more than $500,000 a year, allowing the federal government to buy Medicare drugs in bulk and taking away subsidies for “Big Oil.”
As he has throughout the campaign, Kaine described his strategy as a compromise between dug-in Democratic and Republican positions. On the Bush tax cuts, for instance, President Obama wants them repealed on incomes of more than $250,000, while the GOP wants to keep them in place for everyone.
“Let’s find the middle ground,” he said.
Veterans gathered at the hall talked about the need to eradicate antiquated paper-based systems for handling military benefits. While bemoaning high unemployment rates among veterans, the group complained that civilian employers often do not recognize credentials earned in the military.
Many of the same topics were on the menu at Allen’s roundtable at an American Legion post in Fairfax, where Allen was joined by retired Army Col. Chris Perkins (R) — who is challenging Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D) — as well as Dels. Rich Anderson (R-Prince William) and L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William).
Allen repeatedly invoked the pending defense cuts, citing them as evidence of failed leadership by the Obama administration.
“This is the most pressing issue facing Virginia right now,” Allen said.
Allen said he would work from the start to avert the sequestration cuts — though Democrats have accused him of lacking a realistic plan to do so. In the long term, Allen said he would make it a priority to maintain the country’s fleet of aircraft carriers, submarines and unmanned drones.
He said he would make working for veterans a top priority if he is elected to the Senate and referenced some accomplishments from his last tenure in the chamber, including his work on a bill that increased the death benefit for the families of fallen soldiers from $12,000 to $100,000.
The handful of veterans in attendance shared a variety of complaints with the Senate hopeful, from problems with military overseas voting to the endlessly complex process for Veterans Administration health claims.
A Washington Post poll of Virginia released last month showed Allen narrowly leading Kaine among respondents from veteran households, 52 percent to 46 percent. Allen said Monday he was confident he would do well with that demographic.
“We see a lot of important and strong support from veterans,” Allen said. “They know my record.”
Pershing reported from Fairfax County.