Fighting the good fight 

An Arkansas native organizes Democratic war vets for Congress.

MIKE LYON (at left)
  • MIKE LYON (at left)

Arkansas native Mike Lyon has organized a national political action committee uniting over 50 military veterans running for U.S. congressional seats as Democrats.

Called Band of Brothers, the PAC has raised $40,000 to support the candidacies, which could help insulate the Democratic Party from charges that it is weak on national security issues.

“I saw this as a golden opportunity for Democrats to talk about national security and war,” said Lyon, who went to elementary school in Little Rock before moving to Hampton and graduating from high school there. “If we don’t support these people, there is the potential that we’ll have 50 of these guys who go out there and get beat who you never hear from again.”

Lyon, a professional political consultant based in Richmond, Va., first started thinking about forming Band of Brothers when he began working for the 2006 congressional campaign of David Ash, a Virginia Democrat who served in Iraq.

“I started noticing when I was making calls that everyone loved the idea of an Iraqi war vet running as a Democrat,” Lyon said. “But it wasn’t enough to open up doors in other places to get donors interested. Then I noticed four or five veterans jumping into races all over the country each week. It was a natural move for me to say, let’s form a PAC around this.”

Lyon said his PAC could be compared to Emily’s List (a PAC for pro-choice Democratic women) in that it is set up to both gather financial resources and provide campaign training for the candidates. However, the PAC does not require allegiance to particular policy positions about the war in Iraq or other issues. The only qualifications are being a Democrat and having served in the U.S. armed forces.

“Most are first-time candidates with no personal wealth and haven’t spent their life making political contacts,” Lyon said. “In that way, they’re different from the normal candidates we see. They’re more populist, which has been lacking from Democratic and Republican politics for years.”

Possibly for that reason, the idea has caught on with the Democratic Party establishment. The well-known Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg is helping the PAC with message and strategy, and a Feb. 8 fund-raising event in Washington featured appearances by U.S. Sen. John Kerry, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and former U.S. Sen. Max Cleland. (All three are Democratic war veterans.)

However, military credentials do not guarantee political success, even during a time of heightened anxiety about national security. Kerry, who served in Vietnam, lost in 2004 to President George W. Bush, who did not serve in the combat zone. And only a few months ago, the Democratic Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett lost a special election for an Ohio congressional seat to a Republican with no military experience.

Of course, Hackett ran in an overwhelmingly Republican district, but so are many members of the Band of Brothers. They range from Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran running in the conservative Chicago suburbs, to Jeff Latas, a career Air Force fighter pilot who wants to challenge longtime Republican incumbent Jim Kolbe of Arizona. So even though only one Iraq war veteran is running for Congress as a Republican this year, the Democrats don’t expect to pick up a lot of seats as a result.

Lyon will continue raising money to fund a full-scale national media campaign, and he plans another event in New York City in April and a concert sometime after that.

Since leaving Arkansas after high school, Lyon himself served in the Army for three years before attending the University of Arkansas briefly. After that, he volunteered for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and went on to do political work all over the country, including field organizing for Clark’s 2004 primary campaign in South Carolina.

Now 36, Lyon casts an eye back to Arkansas, believing that the Third Congressional District could be a good place for the Democrats to field a military veteran against incumbent Republican Rep. John Boozman.

“I have an interest in finding someone in that district,” Lyon said. “To me, that potentially could be a swing district. I’m from the state and I know the historical trends, but the changing demographics indicate it is different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. If we get people on the ground there, we could be a cycle or two away from re-taking it.”


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