Bellone shakes the hand of Babylon Councilwoman Jackie Gordon, a...

Bellone shakes the hand of Babylon Councilwoman Jackie Gordon, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, the day after he was elected Suffolk county executive. Credit: Photo by Steve Pfost

Words like "duty," "honor" and "courage" are often tossed around carelessly by candidates seeking public office. Too bad these traits aren't always found in abundance among elected officials. They are, however, characteristics that our military claims to instill in those who serve the country.

Time was when voters took for granted that military service was a solid training ground for elected office. Generals famous for their successful strategies and grace under fire were considered ideal candidates for the presidency. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant and Dwight D. Eisenhower are a few who transferred wartime heroism to White House residency. It was his famous charge up San Juan Hill that made Long Island's own Teddy Roosevelt into a national hero. And John F. Kennedy's courage and leadership in saving the crew of PT-109 clearly helped put him in the Oval Office.

But there was an attitude change after Vietnam. Since that war, military service hasn't always been seen as a positive. For years, though the veteran vote was heavily courted, veterans themselves weren't highly sought for office.

Yet lately in Suffolk County, candidates with military service are back in a big way. It may have started with Lee Zeldin, who served in the Army in Iraq, with his unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2008 and his winning run for State Senate in 2010. Then this past fall, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone touted his Army experience in campaign literature sent to all voters -- not just targeted to veterans.

In his inaugural address, Bellone highlighted Suffolk's contributions to the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War II. He mentioned Teddy Roosevelt's return to Montauk after the Spanish-American War and singled out Suffolk's own Medal of Honor recipient, Navy Seal Lt. Michael P. Murphy. At a time of great challenges, inspiring county workers and the electorate by reminding them of Suffolk's history of service to country was a smart strategic move.

Other candidates have also found it's timely to tap into the renewed appreciation for the sacrifices and contributions made by the military. In Islip, military experience was a common theme: Supervisor Tom Croci and Councilman John Cochrane Jr. both pushed their Navy experience, while Councilman Anthony Senft held up the Army flag. Service to country was a theme of many of their mailings, with pictures of the candidates in uniform. During the campaign, the Democrats blundered by attacking Croci for not owning a house in the town. The backlash by veteran groups defending one of their own was swift.

The inaugural ceremony in Islip was rife with references to military status. Cochrane roused the crowd by telling guests that the town board members were ready to "stand the watch." The second Croci finished his speech -- touching on the themes of duty, service and patriotism -- "Anchors Aweigh," the fight song of the U.S. Naval Academy, rang out over the loudspeakers.

East Hampton Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, whose campaign I advised, highlighted his Army experience in his successful re-election bid. Also of note, unsuccessful town board candidates, Islip's Gene Parrington and East Hampton's Richard Haeg (a client), both ran as proud Marine Corps veterans. Haeg's Purple Heart and Bronze Star graced his mailings and radio ads.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf once gave a bit of advice that's just as applicable for politics as it is for the military: "When placed in command -- take charge." In Suffolk County, a new breed of elected officials is in command. And the way these officials take charge as public servants will undoubtedly be shaped by their military service.

 

Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.

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