RICHMOND — A state Senate candidate from Virginia Beach said he misrepresented his military record, an error that could dim Democrats’ hopes of unseating an entrenched Republican incumbent and winning control of the chamber.
Campaign materials for Gary T. McCollum, a cable television executive challenging Sen. Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach), had said he was “currently a Major in the Army Reserve.”
But Army records show he was discharged 14 years ago, in September 2001, according to Ray Gall, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Ky.
By Tuesday evening, McCollum had updated the error online.
“Today Gary was informed that his understanding of his current military classification was not correct, and as a result will be adjusting the characterization of his time in the Army Reserves on the campaign web site to reflect that information,” according to a statement from McCollum’s campaign manager, Molly Ritner. “Gary remains proud of his years of service in the United States military.”
According to a record of McCollum’s military service from the Army, he was an active-duty officer from 1981 to 1989, including stints with military intelligence and the Army Rangers. He was in the Army Reserves until 1992, when he transferred to inactive duty, before being discharged in 2001 as a major.
The misrepresentation could be particularly dicey in the Virginia Beach district, which includes part of Norfolk, home to the largest naval base in the world.
Wagner, a member of the House for nine years before joining the Senate in 2001, called the error a disservice to members of the military.
“I just think it’s a shame that someone feels like they need to exaggerate their military record,” Wagner said in a phone interview. “It certainly brings into question the integrity of the candidate. More importantly, this area I represent probably has one of the largest groupings of veterans of any legislative district in the state.”
The chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia, John Whitbeck, called on McCollum to withdraw from the race, calling the error “an insult to veterans and automatic disqualification for public office.”
The disparity, first reported by the Virginian-Pilot, is a blow to a campaign that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and state Democrats targeted as one of their best chances to take control of the Senate, where Republicans have a one-vote advantage.
Wagner and McCollum are prolific fundraisers, although Wagner has the benefit of a long career in the legislature. As of the end of June, Wagner had about $512,000 left to spend on the contest, and McCollum had $402,000.
Democrats see Wagner, a shipyard owner who has not had an opponent in 12 years, as an ethically challenged vestige of the legislature before former governor Robert F. McDonnell’s corruption scandal dissuaded many lawmakers from taking freebies. Wagner has countered that his sponsorship of McDonnell’s landmark 2013 transportation bill and support for issues important to his constituents, such as career technical education, give him the edge over McCollum.
Wagner has consistently ranked among the lawmakers most often entertained by corporate benefactors. This year he sponsored a much-maligned bill to free Dominion Virginia Power from routine financial audits; the utility giant is among his biggest donors.
McCollum’s supporters say his up-from-the-bootstraps biography could be compelling as well. The Virginia native grew up in a Richmond housing project and was the first in his family to graduate from high school before advancing in the military and then Cox Communications.
Seeing the potential to topple Wagner, McAuliffe’s political action committee, Common Good VA, gave McCollum’s campaign $15,000 in April, and last week the party touted the launch of television ads in three key Senate races, including McCollum’s.
“I’m not a politician,” he says in the ad. “But I’ve learned throughout my life, in the military and in business that discipline, accountability and hard work, those are the things that really matter.”