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Spouses learn how to flex political muscle

Feb. 19, 2014 - 10:39AM   |  
Homefront Rising Political training
Tatiana Matta is thinking about running for office after attending a political training session for military spouses. (Alan Lessig/Staff)
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As a military spouse with a mobile lifestyle, Tatiana Matta knows she has her work cut out for her if she wants to run for political office on the local, state or national level.

But after attending a political action training event in Washington, D.C., for military spouses, she was starting to think about a game plan as she headed back to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, where her husband is based.

“Having this great panel of experts has helped me make an informed decision to run for office,” she said.

Matta and about 75 other spouses attended the Feb. 11 event, dubbed “Homefront Rising,” sponsored by the Military Spouse J.D. Network and In Gear Career.

“We know America respects and supports our military, and we expect that support to echo in the halls of Congress,” said Air Force spouse Mary Reding, an attorney who is president of the Military Spouse J.D. Network.

“It often does, but it doesn’t always directly reflect our firsthand experience,” she said. “No one knows the hardship and the success that we endure better than us. “We think it’s time for us to make our voices heard.”

Matta doesn’t know exactly what office she’ll seek, but she is starting to research local offices in Ohio. She hopes her foray into politics might begin at her husband’s next duty station possibly in California.

“If you really have a passion to serve, it doesn’t matter if you’re a military spouse — follow your dream and make it happen,” she said. Matta added that the mobile lifestyle can present big challenges, “but we can overcome that.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, who served two tours in Iraq as a member of the Hawaii National Guard, was one of seven politicians who spoke to the group, discussing how they got into politics, often beginning with little other than a passion to serve their country.

Gabbard said many Americans have misconceptions about service members, veterans and their families, and the challenges they face. The only way to clear up some of these misconceptions, she said, “is to get people like yourselves involved and engaged and get you a platform to be able to tell your stories.”

Gabbard said she has talked to veterans who want to run for office but feel they shouldn’t talk about their service out of concern that people will think they’re trying to exploit their veteran status.

“Don’t shy away from it; it’s part of who you are,” Gabbard said. “There aren’t many people in this country who can relate to what you’ve been through.”

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whose husband recently returned from deployment, urged the group to take time to find their own place in the political world.

“That doesn’t always mean running for office, but it does mean knowing the issues, finding how to get involved, whether it’s supporting a candidate, supporting an issue, or deciding to run yourself,” said Haley. “We need real people [to] step up and solve real issues with common sense.”

While some of the spouses were exploring the possibility of running for office, others were looking for other ways to get involved in the political process behind the scenes, whether supporting another candidate, or being an advocate for their cause.

Various panelists and politicians provided advice on aspects ranging from gathering support and raising funds to building a public image. Panelists discussed how to skirt media inquiries they didn’t want to answer, for example.

It’s not an easy road – even for spouses trying to get jobs in staff roles on Capitol Hill. “If a military spouse is only here for a very short amount of time, on [Capitol Hill] there is not that space for term employees, even though many of the lower staff jobs are effectively term employment because people only take them for one or two years,” said Church Hutton, a staffer who works for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “But it’s very challenging.” He said getting a job on Capitol Hill in a staff role “has as much to do with coincidence as it does with capability and resumes.”

Political trainer Robert Arnakis advised potential candidates to know donors’ motives, and whether they expect something in return for a donation.

Some panelists said the frequent moves that military spouses make may be an advantage in politics because of the many contacts they gather along the way. Panelists advised keeping every business card ever collected.

Nicole Eynard, the candidate fundraising director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, described one candidate, a veteran, who tapped into his network of military connections throughout the world asking for small donations.

Arnakis said spouses’ experiences traveling around the country seeing different communities also may add to their campaign credibility.

Army wife Jennifer Carter, an attorney, said she thinks her frequent moves have helped her develop valuable perspective.

“In the future, I can see how the perspective would be helpful, looking at best practices of different areas,” she said. “There are things Oklahoma does well, and things Alaska does well that people might not have thought of.”

One thing that resonated deeply with her in the training presentations, she said, was the emphasis on the need for politicians to stay true to their values.

Carter said she may explore politics on a local level. “I want to hear more, to see if it’s something I’d be really interested in, and open my eyes to the reality … of what it means to run for public office.”

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