Who Should Replace Shinseki?
A handy guide to the potential candidates to be the next VA secretary. By Molly O’Toole
Since Eric Shinseki resigned as head of the Veterans Affairs Department last week, his deputy, former USO President Sloan Gibson, has stepped in to fill the post temporarily. Now the search is on for someone to take the helm at the embattled department. Here are some possible candidates:
From the Pentagon:
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen
The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has the military experience that’s become a near-prerequisite for the job. As for entering into a political crisis, Mullen served both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush. If that’s not enough, he’s a graduate of the Harvard Business School’s advanced management program.
Mullen is no stranger to taking on controversy in the military and Congress. He was the first sitting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays in the military. In crucial testimony before Congress, he said military men and women should not have “to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”
Retired Gen. James Mattis
The former head of U.S. Central Command served in the military for more than 40 years before he retired in 2013. He’s also been at the helm of another at-times ineffective bureaucracy, as NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander. Mattis’s blunt and unapologetic style inspired his call sign “Chaos” and nickname “Mad Dog,” and he’s known for passionate speeches about veterans -- including one that Marine Corps Times said “may be the most motivating speech of all time.” Just days before Shinseki resigned, Mattis railed against “a system that’s got a lot of money behind it to tell [veterans] that they’re damaged.” He could imbue the behemoth agency with some energy, but there may be enough controversy surrounding the VA already without a wild card at the helm.
There also may not be much public support for the choice, given that a We The People petition on the White House website calling for Mattis’ nomination still needed more than 99,000 signatures to garner an official response as of Friday morning. But Mattis has said of his long career in military service, quoting astronaut and senator John Glenn: “It wasn’t long enough.”
Gen. Ray Odierno
The Army chief of staff assumed his position on Sept. 7, 2011, so virtually his entire tenure in the role has been in the post-9/11 world that has defined today’s generation of veterans. He has 37 years of military experience, and bipartisan credentials as the primary military adviser to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. He holds advanced degrees in engineering and national security strategy and is a West Point grad. And then there’s the heartstrings -- he is a grandfather and is married to his high school sweetheart. Odierno also has an intimate understanding of what’s it’s like to be a military parent, and issues involving disabled veterans: His son is a retired Army captain who left the military after losing his arm to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq.
Odierno has admonished Congress on the dangers of politicizing defense funding, stating that the military must be funded for the “world as it exists, not as one we wish it to be.” He might be happy with the VA’s $162 billion budget. But can the nomination of a former general who has had this heated of an exchange on the Hill get through the Senate?
Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal
The former top commander in Afghanistan -- who was named to lead U.S. forces in the country in 2009, the year that then-Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl disappeared -- was once a favorite of President Obama.
But less than 12 months after his appointment, Obama accepted McChrystal’s resignation amid fallout from a Rolling Stone article in which McChrystal and several of his staff criticized top administration officials. While the administration seems to have made its peace with the general, it seems unlikely Obama would tap him for a position in his Cabinet.
McChrystal himself has said he’s not “the best person” for the VA position. “That’s a job that I think is going to be very difficult and is going to take some specific expertise,” he said, according to Politico. “I care enough about what happens there that I hope they seek someone with just the right combination, and they let that individual have enough freedom of action so he can do the right thing.”
Retired Gen. Peter Chiarelli
From 2008 to 2012, as the Army’s vice chief of staff and its highest-ranking general in the Pentagon, Chiarelli made it his personal mission to address many of the complex issues that plague the VA today. In his over four decades in service, the four-star general called for a change in policy -- and attitudes -- on not only women in combat and female veterans, but post-traumatic stress and other mental health issues. A Washington Post profile of Chiarelli just before his retirement called him an “iconoclast” and “innovator,” known for creative solutions such as employing young men in Baghdad’s Sadr City to help fix its sewage system.
Chiarelli has continued his work on mental illness and brain injury as the chief executive of One Mind, which acts to increase awareness of these issues. But if Chiarelli once turned down then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s request that he serve as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness -- in order to retire and take care of his aging mother, according to the Post -- it seems unlikely he’ll answer the call to enter the fray at VA.
From the Civilian World:
While some have suggested that her husband, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, should be the next VA secretary, Holly Petraeus has her own qualifications for the job. As head of the Office of Servicemember Affairs at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Petraeus has been fighting to protect veterans since she took on the role in January 2011 -- and before that, as director of the Better Business Bureau’s Military Line. Caring for veterans is a family business: In addition to her husband, Petraeus’ brother, father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served in the military.
Petraeus also has a track record of working with Congress, ensuring that veterans would be a specifically protected group under the CFPB because service members are especially vulnerable to financial scams. She would bring to the position an in-depth knowledge of the financial workings of the VA system, and an intense personal connection.
But Petraeus’s nomination would also come with controversy, as her name is associated with the scandal that led to her husband’s resignation, after reports surfaced that he had an extramarital affair with his biographer.
From the Veteran Community:
Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, is a longshot to take over at VA. But he has argued strongly that Obama’s next pick should be a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who shares the experience of the massive influx of post-9/11 veterans coming home. IAVA has over 200,000 members, making the organization and Rieckhoff a force to be reckoned with for any politician who wants to be seen as supporting the troops. Accordingly, he has worked closely with Congress and the administration on a number of issues affecting veterans, particularly on mental health and reducing suicides.
On Monday, Rieckhoff called for Obama to move quickly to replace Shinseki, saying he should appoint someone who understands the political workings of Congress, health care and technology. When a reporter suggested that there are few nominees who could handle the immensely complex position, Rieckhoff shot back that among the 2.8 million post-9/11 veterans, there are many qualified candidates.
Sowers, an Iraq War veteran, was VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs from 2012 until earlier this year, giving him experience at the kind of message management that will be crucial to navigating the VA through a public crisis of confidence. He served over a decade in the Army Corps of Engineers and with Army Special Forces, earning the rank of major. He’s also taught at West Point and has a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics.
In a National Journal profile of Sowers last year, he said his youth was a political advantage to VA leadership, helping the agency connect with the younger generation of veterans. He also gained insight into the political world with an unsuccessful run for a House seat in Missouri in 2010.
Sowers already has been approved once by the Senate. He received special backing from home-state Sen. Claire McCaskill, a leading member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and succeeded Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a fellow veteran. He’s also been an adviser to IAVA.
Of the assistant secretary position, which Sowers left for an academic appointment, he said, "It's an incredible privilege to fight to make sure veterans can access their benefits." It’s a fight that would intensify exponentially in the top job. And at 38, his age could also disqualify him.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii
With the resignation of Shinseki, eyes immediately turned to Congress’ veterans. Gabbard, a Hawaii Democrat, deployed twice to Iraq and continues to serve as a captain in Hawaii’s National Guard. She’s one of the first two female combat veterans in Congress, representing the fastest-growing veteran population: female servicemembers. Women now make up roughly 15 percent of the U.S. military, and they face unique obstacles within the VA system, a problem the agency has acknowledged.
Gabbard called Shinseki “an American hero” in a statement upon his resignation, but continued, “This day is not about Shinseki. This day is about all of our servicemembers and veterans, and the tragedy that has been occurring within the VA, an organization which has lost sight of its mission.” She has called for “creative steps that will yield immediate results” and has pledged legislation to enable veterans to seek private medical care unhindered by the VA system. She’s also written to Obama, asking him to use his powers to order the VA to pay for private care.
Though Gabbard hasn’t commented on whether or not she’d want the VA job, Concerned Veterans for America, a veterans group that leans conservative, included her on a list of recommendations from both parties.
Former Sen. Bob Kerrey
The former governor of Nebraska is close with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, also a former senator from his home state. But Kerrey split from the secretary on the VA crisis, calling early on for Shinseki’s resignation. Kerrey served in Congress from 1989 to 2001, meaning he would be adept at navigating the politics of the office, though he has been off the Hill for some time.
While critical of Shinseki, Kerrey has given high marks to the VA, where he was a patient for nearly a decade. “It saved my life,” he said, according to The Hill. “Gave me a chance to put my life back together.” Kerrey served in Vietnam as a Navy Seal and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
But Kerrey has already listed a criterion for the next VA secretary that disqualifies himself: youth. “We need a younger veteran -- preferably one who was injured in Iraq or Afghanistan -- because those are the guys who need to be at the front of the line,” he said, according to NebraskaWatchdog.org.
Former Rep. Patrick Murphy
Murphy, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was the first Iraq War veteran to serve in Congress. He lost reelection in 2010, but is still an active advocate for veterans, joining with MSNBC for a series of documentaries on veterans called “Taking The Hill.”
The day of Shinseki’s resignation, Murphy called for a replacement that “will inspire confidence in veterans, who walked in their ranks . . . has an intimate understanding of veteran policy, and has the leadership ability,” according to the Washington Post -- though he didn’t say whether he was the man for the job.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.
Let’s let Stars and Stripes say it right upfront: “A service-disabled female veteran who’s a Democrat? Longer shots have existed.” The Iraq War veteran and Army captain was shot down while flying a Black Hawk helicopter and lost both of her legs below the knee and the use of her right arm. As the first female double amputee in Iraq, she spent a year at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and knows all too well the experience of veterans with disabilities. Obama tapped Duckworth to be assistant secretary of veterans affairs and she served in his administration from 2009 to 2011. She focused on veteran homelessness -- an issue closely connected to VA care -- before running for Congress from Ohio in 2012.
She’s a rising Democrat, having given a high-profile speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In Congress, she serves on the House Armed Services and Oversight and Government Reform Committees. It was one of the last nails in the coffin for Shinseki when after initially reserving judgment, Duckworth called for the resignation of her former boss -- though she blamed politics, in part.
She’s politically savvy and scrappy, has high-level VA experience and earned a Purple Heart -- yet when the Washington Post asked Duckworth whether she’d accept the job if Obama called again, she demurred.
“I’m a sucker for that ‘Your nation needs you to serve’ line. But I would say no," she said, then added, "I’m just getting started serving my constituents here and I guess you could never say no, but I think that the work that I’m doing now is critical."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, ranks among the Vietnam veterans serving in Congress and is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. He served as an Army Ranger after graduating from West Point -- one of only eight senators in history to have done so.
Keep in mind, too, that the administration will likely be considering whose seat will remain safely Democratic if the nominee vacates it for the Cabinet post. Rhode Island is a pretty safe bet.
But Reed has rebuffed talk that he may be a contender for the VA post. “I am continuing to serve the people of Rhode Island in the United States Senate, which is one of the greatest privileges I can think of,” Reed told Politico, adding that “pretty much” meant he didn’t want the job.
Sen. John Walsh, D-Mont.
Walsh, a Montana Democrat, enlisted in the National Guard and is a decorated Iraq War veteran. In 2014 he became the first of the war’s veterans to serve in the Senate. Initially after the VA scandal broke, Walsh held off on calling for Shinseki’s resignation, instead blaming the situation on “Washington politicians” who “keep voting against services for veterans.”
But by the end of May, he had concluded VA needed a new leader. “It is time for President Obama to remove Secretary Shinseki from office,” he said, adding, “accountability lies with President Obama, Secretary Shinseki, the VA, and also with Congress, which has the obligation to fully fund the costs of war.” Walsh was one of the first Democrats to call for Shinseki’s resignation, but doesn’t appear to have any designs on his job. He’s busy running for his party’s nomination to keep his seat, to which he was appointed in February.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn.
Walz, a Minnesota Democrat who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, enlisted in the Army National Guard at 17 and retired 24 years later as a sergeant major, making him the highest-ranking enlisted soldier ever to serve in Congress. He also served in Afghanistan. And he was actually born in West Point -- West Point, Neb., that is.
The Hill put forth his name in a list of potential candidates, and while it’s unclear whether or not he wants the job, he’s sure to be tough on whoever is chosen: Alex Nicholson, the legislative director at IAVA, said Walz has been "tougher during the [VA] hearings than some of the Republicans."
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
McCain wants his good friend and fellow Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to have the VA job, arguing that his credentials are superior to anyone else on Capitol Hill.
“If there's anybody in Congress that knows more about health care, then Tom Coburn should be the next secretary of the Veterans Administration, in my view,” McCain said on CBS’ Face The Nation Sunday.
Coburn, along with McCain, has sponsored legislation to address the ongoing problems at the VA, which is expected to be taken up by the Senate next week.
As a doctor, Coburn specializes in family medicine, obstetrics and allergy treatment. He’s also personally delivered more than 4,000 babies and has beaten cancer three times. He has a rare combination of medical and political experience. But Coburn, elected in 2004, is leaving the Senate due to another bout with cancer, and McCain seems to be the only one calling for his nomination to head the VA. Even Coburn said his nomination makes as much sense as “Sen. McCain being the new press person for the Obama administration.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain laughed on Tuesday when asked whether he wanted the VA job. The Arizona Republican, Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war is a vocal advocate for veterans. He’s also a powerful political figure, as a former presidential candidate and member of the Senate since 1986, where he serves on the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.
McCain’s military career is long and storied: He entered the Naval Academy in 1954 and served in the Navy until 1981 as a fighter pilot. He was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years.
McCain has strongly criticized Obama for the VA’s problems, which have centered on the Phoenix VA Medical Center in his state. He’s urged the president to “call together the best people he can find” to fix the agency, but apparently doesn’t think he falls into that group. “I don’t have the credentials,” he said this week. “Plus, I don’t want to destroy a beautiful friendship.
From the Medical Profession:
Dr. Delos M. Cosgrove
In recent days Cosgrove has risen from being a well-known head of the successful Cleveland Clinic (but a relative unknown in Washington) to Obama’s rumored pick for VA secretary, with the White House already giving the doctor a call. His experience managing a large health care system is extensive: the Cleveland Clinic is a $6.2 billion system with nearly 100 facilities across the country -- and even one in Abu Dhabi. Still, that pales in comparison to the VA system, which sees more than 16 times the number of patients, according to data from the Washington Post. Cosgrove’s bio on the clinic’s site declares that “his leadership has emphasized patient care and patient experience.” That’s an area of dire need at the VA, where veteran patients have been put behind performance bonuses at some locations.
Cosgrove is a decorated Vietnam Veteran, having served as a surgeon in the Air Force, and as chief of the service’s Casualty Staging Flight in Vietnam.
He is also widely published, holds 30 patents for medical innovations and has testified before Congress on health care reform. Obama has cited the clinic as an example of how to provide quality care for a lower cost, and Cosgrove has come to the White House twice to discuss the Affordable Care Act. As the Post notes, though Cosgrove has discussed the law’s drawbacks, he hasn’t taken a public position for or against it. Still, he may raise Obamacare flags for some conservative members of Congress, including those running for reelection on their opposition to the president’s health care law.
Eds. Note: Dr. Cosgrove is now out. In a statement released Saturday, he said, "This has been an extraordinarily difficult decision, but I have decided to withdraw from consideration from this position and remain at the Cleveland Clinic, due to the commitment I have made to the organization, our patients and the work that still needs to be done here."
(Photo credits: PRNewsFoto/Cleveland Clinic/AP, Defense Department, Nati Harnik/AP, Lynne Sladky/AP)
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