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Veterans policies pivotal issue in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race

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JC Schisler | Trib Total Media
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, seen at the Tribune-Review offices in May 2015. Many constituents want to see Toomey, who held a virtual town hall Thursday, appear at such events in person. April 6, 2017
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Former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania wants to challenge U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016. Toomey beat Sestak in 2010 by 2 percentage points.

Military veterans and the issues important to them once again are factoring into the partisan politics of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, touts his record on veterans issues as Democratic challenger Joe Sestak, a former Navy admiral and congressman, jabs Toomey about whether he’s really supportive of those who served and their families.

There are 21.8 million veterans of the armed forces — nearly 1 million in Pennsylvania — so those votes could be important when Toomey defends his seat in 2016.

Katie McGinty, an environmentalist who was Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff and has the backing of former Gov. Ed Rendell, stepped into the Democratic primary race in August. She has not weighed in on veterans’ issues.

Toomey, a member of the Senate Congressional Veterans Jobs Caucus, told the Tribune-Review that recent problems, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs’ backlog in processing health care claims, “were completely unacceptable. We have made improvements, but we still have a long way to go with that.”

In July, Toomey voted to support the Surface Transportation and Veterans Health Care Choice Improvement Act of 2015 that makes money available to pay for veterans’ health care provided by sources other than the VA.

In 2014, he co-sponsored a bill that allows the VA secretary to fire poor-performing employees and gives veterans flexibility on where they receive medical care, according to his campaign website. The law authorized $10 billion to improve veterans’ access to care.

Last month, Concerned Veterans for America aired a $1.5 million digital and television ad campaign praising Toomey. The group considers him “a leader in the fight to hold VA bureaucrats accountable for failing Pennsylvania veterans,” CEO Pete Hegseth said when announcing the ads, which ran through Aug. 25.

“There should not be such a thing as at-risk veterans. Sen. Pat Toomey is committed to making sure every veteran is provided with the health care and benefits they deserve,” Navy veteran Barb Doyne of Malvern, Chester County, said in the ad.

The nonprofit CVA, based in Arlington, Va., and funded in part by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, on its website says veterans and their families “have the potential to constitute a powerful force if they make their voices heard in the policy process.”

Veterans were in the Senate candidates’ sights in 2010, when Sestak lost to Toomey by 2 percentage points.

VoteVets.org, which advocates to elect Democratic veterans to Congress, backed Sestak then and now. The Portland, Ore.-based group — which calls itself “the voice of America’s 21st century patriots” — gets money from hedge fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer, as well as Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection and the United Steelworkers of America union, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

VoteVets Chairman Jon Stolz, an Iraq War veteran, acknowledged Americans’ distrust of elected officials but said of Sestak: “There’s not a person I would trust more than him.”

On his website, Sestak claims Toomey voted against budgets that support veterans services. When the Toomey ad aired, several newspapers in Pennsylvania published letters to the editor from veterans echoing Sestak’s allegations.

Among the claims were that Toomey voted against bankruptcy protection for National Guard and Reserve members sent to Afghanistan and Iraq; that he voted against a program to give child care assistance to veterans; and that he voted to defund Veterans Business Outreach Centers at the Small Business Administration.

Sestak’s campaign would not make him available for an interview.

“Adm. Sestak truly feels that veterans and their families say it better than he can, and he joins them,” his spokeswoman, Danielle Lynch, wrote in an email.

But political analyst G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, said, “It’s the oldest political maneuver in the book when you are in a tough primary contest and you are trying to show your party you are the better candidate than your opponent for the general election. He is digging into big omnibus budgets to cherry-pick two or three things out — a very common practice — and say, ‘Hey, see? Toomey doesn’t support veterans.’

“It’s not exactly a fair way to make his point, but commercials are not about being fair,” Madonna said. “(Sestak) is trying to do something he thinks might work.”

An August poll by Franklin & Marshall showed Sestak leading McGinty by 3 points, with 66 percent of Democrats undecided. In a general election match-up, Toomey leads Sestak by 12 points, 41 percent to 29 percent, and McGinty by 7 points, 35 percent to 28 percent, the survey found.

Joe Eastman, 64, a retired Navy lieutenant colonel in Philadelphia, said he respects Sestak’s service to the country but finds his allegations that Toomey abandoned veterans in Washington unacceptable.

“His accusations are completely unfounded,” said Eastman, who spends time helping homeless veterans. “Anytime I have a problem or identified a growing concern, Senator Toomey’s office has responded immediately.”

Toomey said he holds veterans roundtable discussions and meets with some veterans groups monthly. Those conversations, he said, guide him in Washington.

A veteran in Reading, for example, told Toomey of his problems in finding work when he returned from Afghanistan. He did not know about VA programs to address such problems. That led Toomey to add an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, allowing the Defense Department to give state veterans affairs departments contact information for newly discharged service members for outreach purposes.

Toomey introduced the Protect Veterans Employment & Training Services Act, known as Protect VETS, “to ensure veterans have access to specialized job assistance coaches” who would work with businesses, his website says.

Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at [email protected].

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