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VA problems a political issue in military-rich North Carolina

Very few issues can bring contentious Democrats and Republicans in the North Carolina general assembly together. But this week, marking national military appreciation month, a joint resolution expressing gratitude and appreciation for “the men and women of the United States armed forces” won unanimous support.

Those men and women and their families are important constituents and the military ranks as a major economic driver in a state with, as the resolution mentioned, six major military bases, nearly 800,000 veterans, and the third largest military force in the country, with close to 120,000 active duty personnel and another 12,000 members of the North Carolina National Guard.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Matt Eich/ For The Washington Post). VA Secretary Eric Shinseki. (Matt Eich/ For The Washington Post).

So the current investigation of allegations of slow wait times and false record-keeping at the VA that is being closely watched all over is of special interest in North Carolina. In the midst of a tight U.S. Senate race, it’s inevitable politics as well as concern would be part of the reaction.

In a Thursday statement, state House Speaker Thom Tillis, who is also the Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan in the November election, said: “Kay Hagan and President Obama both promised to create a world-class system for our veterans in 2008, but the recent VA scandal has made it clear that there is a systematic bureaucratic breakdown within the VA.  It’s a national travesty that is creating a crisis of confidence.

“The President’s lack of urgency and Senator Hagan’s silence are not helping matters.  This is not a partisan issue—we cannot afford to wait any longer. We need immediate action and swift accountability to make sure this never happens again.”

Hagan, in her own Thursday statement, said, in part: “It is critical that the leadership of the VA retains the trust and confidence of the veterans that it serves. Reports of improper scheduling practices that have resulted in life-threatening delays for our veterans are completely unacceptable, and there must be a full investigation to immediately determine the extent of the problem and hold accountable those responsible, no matter who it is.

“I have personally been in direct communication with the VA in recent days regarding the investigations at the Durham VA clinic and elsewhere and will continue working to ensure full transparency and accountability in the process.”

Although many allegations have come from the Phoenix VA system, last week the Department of Veteran Affairs said that two Durham VA Medical Center employees have been put on administrative leave during investigations into a report that “some employees at that facility may have engaged in inappropriate scheduling practices at some point between 2009 and 2012.”

Hagan also mentioned her efforts last year to address the backlog of disability claims at the Winston-Salem regional office, which brought VA Undersecretary of Benefits Allison Hickey there.

The Tillis playbook has been and looks as though it will continue to be trying to link Hagan with Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, policies such as the Affordable Care Act, and problems like the current VA headlines. The latest Public Policy Polling survey shows the race, which could determine control of the U.S. Senate, a toss-up, with Tillis, Hagan and Obama all having higher unfavorable than favorable numbers.

Much like Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes, who is fighting Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, Hagan emphasizes her independence and home-state authenticity. Hagan, though, is an incumbent in a year when there is voter discontent. She so far has not called, as Grimes and the American Legion have, for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.

Hagan’s Website bio is more North Carolina than Washington. Besides mentioning her visits to the states’ bases and travel to Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait to meet with North Carolina troops, it prominently features personal connections to the military, including a father-in-law who was a two-star Marine general, a father and brother who served in the Navy, and her husband,  a Navy Vietnam veteran, who “attended Wake Forest Law School with help from the G.I. Bill.”

In February of this year, Hagan sent a letter to Shinseki, requesting an update on the investigation into a breach of personal information on the VA eBenefits site.

In the present, however, the VA investigations are progressing and citizens are looking for improvement and accountability. Politicians won’t be shy about weighing in or pointing fingers.

For Tillis, nationalizing the election is his best hope, as the return of “Moral Monday” demonstrations have highlighted dissatisfaction with state policies on health care, education and voting restrictions. At the state legislature, recently initiated rules against any group making enough noise to interfere with conversation – which would include the clapping and singing common at past demonstrations – have been criticized as undemocratic.

Will the VA investigation shift the conversation in military-minded North Carolina? At the very least, it adds one more issue to what is becoming one of the country’s most-watched November Senate races.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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