Veterans issues and military service is a recurring theme in Michigan’s U.S. Senate race, as candidates play out a high-stakes political version of the longtime rivalry between the Army and Navy.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve “Seabee” who stakes a reputation on his work overseeing homeland security, FEMA and the military in Congress. That reputation faces scrutiny from Republican challenger John James, whose background as a U.S. Army pilot is often the first thing told to voters about the Senate hopeful.
The first television ad Peters released in his bid for a second six-year term focuses on his military service and work to pass legislation improving veterans’ mental health resources and apprenticeship programs. Peters’ reelection campaign recently tapped retired Maj. Gen. Greg Vadnais, a former appointee of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, to lead outreach to Michigan veterans.
James’ military service has been front and center since his first attempt at a Michigan Senate seat in 2018. The Farmington Hills businessman decorates campaign materials with the silhouette of an attack helicopter, reflecting his background as a pilot in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and launched his second Senate bid on the anniversary of D-Day.
The two candidates identified the challenges facing veterans in similar terms during interviews with MLive, highlighting the importance of improving access to health care, workforce training and addressing the hidden trauma service members too often face alone.
Peters said much of his work in the Senate is focused on improving the outcomes for veterans, informed by his own experiences in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Peters originally volunteered in 1993 at the age of 35, then rejoined in 2001 after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The 61-year-old senator wrote a provision signed into law in 2016 that expanded eligibility for programs assisting service members suffering from PTSD. The law allows traumatized veterans who received a less than honorable discharge to receive mental health support. It was inspired by the senator’s interactions with an Afghanistan war veteran living on the streets in Grand Rapids, Peters said.
Peters touted another bill improving access to workforce training programs that received the president’s signature in March. It increases the number of apprenticeship programs that veterans can apply for using GI bill benefits.
The Bloomfield Township Democrat said voters will hear more about his efforts to increase veterans disability compensation, including additional funding for Vietnam War veterans exposed to Agent Orange, and to clean up PFAS contamination at Air Force bases around Michigan.
“What I’ve been talking about during this campaign are the things that I’ve focused on as a U.S. Senator, the issues I fight for, and the legislation that I pass,” Peters said.
James, 39, often reflects on lessons learned in the military, promoting values like “leaders eat last” and “service before self” while on the campaign trail. James said that ethos drives his quest to become Michigan’s first Black senator during campaign stops in Kalamazoo County this week.
“I had to accomplish the mission and take care of my soldiers,” James said in an interview. “I accomplished the mission. I brought all of my men, weapons and equipment back home, and that’s what people in the state of Michigan expect from their elected officials: No excuses, to put them first and be able to accomplish the mission and take care of people at the same time.”
Though James doesn’t have legislative accomplishments to lean on, he pointed to his role on the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund Board as a Snyder appointee. James said his efforts helped grow the fund by $8 million and reduced the program’s burden on taxpayers by 12%.
James said he’s “put his money where his mouth is” by donating a portion of campaign funds to charitable causes around the state. He wrote a $10,000 check to Kalamazoo Mortgage Hero Salute on Monday, supplying the nonprofit with funds that will partially go toward a college scholarship.
“We can put our records against each other, whether it’s our military record or taking care of veterans and I’m quite sure the people of the state of Michigan will say I’ll come out on top,” James said.
The two candidates are on a collision course as neither faces an August primary challenger. Political forecasters expect the race to be close, though Peters enjoys a consistent lead in polling with 100 days until votes are cast.
James issued a challenge to Peters on social media Tuesday: Participate in four debates, two of which are broadcast on national TV. Michigan’s Senate race already has the national spotlight, being among only two Democrat-controlled seats in battleground states won by President Donald Trump.
Peters’ campaign said the senator is “looking forward” to a debate, and the chance to hold James’ feet to the fire.
Peters said James has yet to explain his policy agenda to Michigan voters in a meaningful way, arguing his voting record in the Senate carries more weight than James’ rhetoric. James recently began inviting journalists to campaign events after keeping his distance from local reporters for much of the last year, partly due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He has yet to talk about much, so I don’t know what the substance is,” Peters said. “The only thing I’m saying is he’s talking about it – I’m actually doing it.”
James invited MLive to join him on campaign stops in Kalamazoo and Portage on Monday, where he met with a local nonprofit and organizers supporting his cause in West Michigan. He met with a group of veterans, including Phillip Blanks, a Kalamazoo native and Marine Corps veteran who made national news after he caught a child who was dropped from a burning building.
During a discussion on the high rate of suicide among veterans, James expressed support for taking medical marijuana off the list of Schedule I drugs, allowing more researchers to study its positive effects on addressing PTSD and pain management. James said his roommate at West Point died by suicide.
“It’s just one of those things that’s affected me,” James said. “You just ask yourself, ‘what could I have done to prevent this?”
James said he “couldn’t vote for” legalizing recreational marijuana, but respects the will of states like Michigan that have already done so. He also said criminal justice reform efforts should address people incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses.
Later in the day, James told Republican organizers in Portage that Americans are united in their frustration with elected representatives. James said Black and conservative Michiganders don’t have a voice in the Senate.
Peters says he’s one of the most bipartisan members of the Senate. Vadnais, the former adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard supporting Peters’ reelection effort, said James is a “fine young man,” but considers Peters to be an effective senator.
“I really appreciate the bipartisan way he that he does things,” said Vadnais, who described himself as a life-long Republican.
James scoffed at the bipartisan label in Portage on Monday, telling supporters the term is a buzzword that “makes me want to throw up.” He said many of the country’s problems are “nonpartisan.”
Peters and James have yet to compare their records face-to-face, so political organizations are waging that war in the meantime.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a website attacking Peters’ record on veterans issues. A fact check by Politifact, a nonprofit news organization, found many of the claims made by the NRSC misrepresent his votes.
James said he’s also been targeted by unfair attacks from Democrats about his stance on repealing the Affordable Care Act. During his 2018 campaign, James called the ACA a “monstrosity” and supported replacing the Obama-era law.
The ACA has been credited with dramatically reducing the number of uninsured veterans who lack access to VA health insurance. A 2017 study by the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank, found veterans would be among the biggest losers if the health care law was repealed.
Asked where he stands on the issue today, James said he wants to improve the ACA and remove portions of the law that eliminate choice and raise costs.
The Michigan Democratic Party and organizations supporting Peters’ campaign claim James’ past support for repealing Obamacare means he would eliminate protections for people with pre-existing conditions. James said that’s not true, and a second Politifact review found attacks an ad by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees inaccurately reflected James’ health care stance.
“Democrats have lied and misrepresented my position,” James said. “I believe we have to have a patient-centered, market-driven approach that must cover pre-existing conditions, must take care of veterans, and I’ve said for a long time: We need to fix the parts of Obamacare that are broken and keep the parts that aren’t.”
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