About 70 veterans took part in a two-day "boot camp" Feb. 11-12 at George Washington University to learn about running for political office. The event, hosted by the nonprofit Veterans Campaign, featured remarks by Sen. Michael Enzi , R-Wyo., and Delaware's Attorney General, Beau Biden .
Participants heard from several panelists, including recently elected congressional representatives Tim Walz, D-Minn.; Tom Rooney, R-Fla.; and Ann Marie Buerkle, R-N.Y. They shared their experiences in making the decision to run for office, getting organized, raising money and lessons learned.
Walz, a retired Army sergeant major, said, "The bulk of what we share are the same values for this country, the same commitment to democracy, and the understanding -- especially, I think (this) group that understands what veterans give -- of that commitment of service and what it means."
Walz also told the office-seeking veterans that people are looking for leadership they can trust. "Whether that's a conservative point of view on the world, or whether it's a liberal point of view, they want to see your authenticity. But the thing that I found is, people want to be with a winner. People want to be with competency."
Veterans already possess many of the skills needed to run a political campaign, Walz said, such as the ability to organize and to analyze things in detail. He said that politics was simply the means to an end that varies with each candidate's ideology: achieving policy and governance that "you believe in your heart" what is best for one's constituents and this country. A positive, optimistic and well-run campaign "is a very powerful thing to see."
Rooney, a former Army JAG officer and West Point instructor, advised his audience to "please never use the phrase, ‘People are encouraging me to run.' You have to run because you think that you have the ideas to make this country a better place."
The Florida congressman too explained that a lot of politicians "are waiting in line" for seats to open up, and they may resent a newcomer running for a position they expected to get. "In my mind, it wasn't so much, ‘Well, I'm not waiting my turn.' It's ‘I want to serve my country and Congress is the place where I think I can be useful.'"
Rooney won the seat that was vacated by Tom Foley.
Buerkle is not a veteran but sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee and has a brother who is a retired Marine Corps colonel. She said that public office isn't just another job. "Campaigning can't be a job and serving can't be a job. It has to be a passion. It has to be something deep inside of you that says, ‘I want to make a change.'"
But passion alone won't guarantee victory. Buerkle described more practical considerations. "You've got to talk to the county chairs. You've got to follow the protocol, you've got to talk to all of the players. You've got to get the lay of the land and you've got to find out what the process is because if you circumvent the process, you're not considered legitimate."
In terms of running for Congress, Buerkle said, "It has been the hardest thing I've ever done, but it is the most gratifying thing I've ever done. The United States of America is a great nation. She deserves people like yourselves, who served their country and will continue to serve their country."
Biden, an officer in the Army National Guard who served a tour in Iraq, told the veterans "we need you. The public life that some of us choose to lead is better with your presence in it. You bring a unique perspective to elected life. You have a perspective that many, many Americans don't. And you have a level of credibility that, while not necessary to ask the tough questions that our constituents deserve (to have) asked, you bring a level of credibility in asking those questions."
Elected officials and military leaders both need to be challenged by those who have served America in uniform, Biden said. He advised the attendees to "only pursue elected life if there's an issue you care so deeply about that it's worth losing an election over. You need to be candidate first and ‘kind of happen to be' a soldier. But find that issue that is worth losing an election over. Whether it be an economic issue, whether it be the role of government, whether it be the projection of our forces around the world...pick the issue, or pick the series of issues — even better — that animate you."
After Biden spoke, the "boot camp" heard from Enzi, a veteran who served in the Wyoming Air National Guard. "I've got to tell you, if you run for office, whether you win or lose, it is a tremendous experience — it's much better if you win, of course."
The senator from Wyoming also told the audience they must have some worthwhile ideas as political candidates.
"I always remind people that if you're going to be running against an incumbent, that it will be extremely tough. You'd better hope that the incumbent is incompetent, because an incumbent is practicing every day for the debate that you're going to have," Enzi said. "But if you've got good ideas, his debate will not overcome your ideas."
Enzi described politics as "a full-contact sport that can be bruising" and recalled the time when someone introduced him at an event during his senate race by saying, "You know the difference between a horse race and a political race? In a horse race, the whole horse is in the race."
Fielding a question from Lou Longo, a retired Navy veteran living in Virginia, about how families cope with the stress of public life, Enzi said, "It definitely has an effect on the family. Usually, if you're running and they're involved in the campaign, they know what it's about and why you're doing it. And that gives them a lot of courage to stand up to some of the difficulties that they'll have. If they're with you, they're a tremendous support. If they're not with you, then don't run."
Another panel, featuring media professionals who report on congressional issues, discussed how military veteran candidates have fared during recent elections — especially those for federal offices. The third panel focused on how veterans can use their learned leadership skills to continue in public service.
Veterans Campaign has sponsored three "boot camps" since 2009. The group offers nonpartisan training to veterans interested in running for public office. To learn more, visit www.veteranscampaign.org .