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What's Motivating Young Vets to Take Up Politics?

Congressman Seth Moulton (right) met with three Ohio Navy vets running for office: Lauren Friedman (left center), Ohio's 29th Senate District; Cassie Gabelt (center), Ohio's 50th House District; and Ken Harbaugh, Ohio's 7th Congressional District.
Congressman Seth Moulton (right) met with three Ohio Navy vets running for office: Lauren Friedman (left center), Ohio's 29th Senate District; Cassie Gabelt (center), Ohio's 50th House District; and Ken Harbaugh, Ohio's 7th Congressional District.

A congressman from Massachusetts spent part of this weekend campaigning for a would-be congressman from Northeast Ohio. The link is that they’re both Democrats, both Ivy League grads and both vets of America’s most-recent wars. We talked with the two about the increasingly visible role of veterans in this year’s elections.

A Q&A with Moulton and Harbaugh

Congressman Seth Moulton served four tours in Iraq where he earned a Bronze Star before running for Congress with the endorsement of people like Gen. Stanley McChrystal. His bio — which also includes three degrees from Harvard – is part of why his name comes up when talk turns to 2020 presidential candidates.

But on this scorching Saturday, he was campaigning from one end of Ohio’s 7th Congressional District to the other with Ken Harbaugh. Harbaugh’s a Navy pilot who founded a nonprofit that employs vets to deploy aid to disasters around the world.

Moulton acknowledges Harbaugh is the kind of candidate he has recruited. But he says he’s had help.

“The No. 1 recruiter we have is our commander-in-chief, Donald Trump," said Moulton. "He’s inspiring so many Democratic veterans to stand up and say we’re going to take this country back.”

Same words, different meaning?

Among them is Harbaugh, who says he recalls the oath he took as a 22-year-old joining the U.S. Navy.

“I swore to support and defend -- not a party, certainly not an individual -- but the Constitution of the United States.” Harbaugh acknowledges it’s the same oath members of Congress take, “but it’s different when you’ve put your life on the line for it, when honestly you’ve lost buddies... You bring to the job a seriousness, a love for the Constitution and the separation of powers…  And I think this generation of vets running for Congress is going to bring that to Washington with them.”

Moulton notes the military recruits people from widely different backgrounds.

“We were able to set aside those differences to do what was right for the country. And fundamentally, I think that’s what Americans should expect of members of Congress as well.”

The audience at the stop Moulton and Harbaugh made in Stark County included a conservative, life-long Republican -- an Air Force vet who’s been coming to Harbaugh events for a few weeks now. Harbaugh says there’s something that transcends issues.

“The main thing people want is accountability. They want people who are going to… be honest with them. We’re not going to agree on everything and we shouldn’t. I hope we don’t… That wouldn’t be democracy. But at least we’re showing up, and we’re being truthful and we’re representing who we are.”

Moulton says boot camp in the Marines drummed that into him.

“You can drop out of a run and they’ll give you another shot. You can fail a test, and you can retake it tomorrow. But if you lie about anything, you’re gone that afternoon.”

GOP territory

The 7th Congressional District stretches from Lorain County southwest through rural sections of central Ohio before veering back northeast through Tuscarawas and Stark counties. It is a heavily Republican district now represented by four-term incumbent Bob Gibbs. Moulton acknowleges Harbaugh faces tough odds. But he notes he did, too, when he took on a Democratic incumbent in Massachusetts’s 2014 primary.

“People look at Ken and don’t just see a Democrat. They see someone they can trust as a leader."

The Trump factor

Moulton admits President Trump has had an impact on this year’s congressional election beyond galvanizing Democrats.

“In all honesty, a lot of people voted for Trump because they’re frustrated. They’re frustrated with Washington and I get that… I have a lot of friends who voted for Trump. But we have a commander-in- chief that we can’t trust and we have a commander-in-chief who’s unchecked in Washington. And that’s why we need to restore some balance in Washington.”

Harbaugh says Congress is failing in its “most fundamental responsibility to serve as a separate branch of government. That was ordained by the Founders as one of the key features of our democracy.”

Harbaugh is one of dozens of vets of the Iraqi and Afghan wars running for state and congressional seats this year. In 2017, vets made up just 20 percent of the U.S. senators and 19 percent of Congress. The Pew Research Center says they made up 81 percent of the Senate 45 years ago, and 75 percent of the House.

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

M.L. Schultze
M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.