By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Democratic party leaders still believe they have a chance to reclaim the State Senate, provided they win one or two seats on election day November 3.
One of those contests is being waged by Gary McCollum of Virginia Beach, who is challenging incumbent Senator Frank Wagner’s 7th District seat, which sits in Norfolk and Virginia Beach.
McCollum, who has secured backing from every level of the Democratic party leadership including the Governor, has been a viable fundraiser and a strong presence on the campaign trail and during debates with the incumbent Republican.
But McCollum’s campaign to unseat Wagner has been knocked off its stride, as questions about his status in the U.S. Army reserve surfaced in local media reports over the past week.
Most recently, Republicans now are questioning if McCollum may have violated state election law by not reporting payment from his employer, Cox Communications, while he takes leave to campaign.
“This is a desperate attempt to hide the fact that Frank Wagner is the Senate’s top gift recipient and epitomizes the corrupt, pay-to-play culture in Richmond, supporting legislation for the special interests that subsidize his lifestyle and his campaigns, not for his constituents,” said Molly Ritner, McCollum’s campaign manager, as reported by the Virginian Pilot on Tuesday (September 22).
Wagner was a no-show on Monday night (September 21) for a political forum sponsored by the Virginia Beach African American Political Action Committee at First First Lynnhaven.
According to Andrew Jackson one of the leaders of the political action committee, the event was well attended and McCollum was received warmly.
McCollum used the forum to reiterate his defense on the issue of his military service.
News reports that McCollum exited the U.S. Army as an Inactive Duty Reservist in 2001 and is not currently in the Army Reserves have dogged his campaign the past week.
He said he was not aware that he had been separated from service.
On Monday, the Guide interviewed McCollum and he was clear that he is fighting back against Wagner campaign’s effort to slow his momentum.
“I do regret the mischaracterization of my military career and service,” he said. “But we found out from the military archives that I was still part of the military reserves. I was inactive from 1989-92 and I was in Individual Ready Reserves in 1992 and said I was still part of the IRR.”
“I am proud of that service and no political attacks will change that,” he continued. “No attacks will change my 26 years of business and service to organizations like the Boys and Girls Club.”
McCollum said he was disappointed that Wagner would question his service, “but that is what politicians do. But I think people want someone who will represent their interests and not the special interest.”
McCollum, who has taken a hiatus from his job as CEO of local Cox Cable Operations, said he believed he was in the Reserves, although he has not had any interaction with the U.S. Army since 2001 nor participated in drills or received any wages.
Before he entered the brief stint in the Reserves, he left the regular U.S. Army in 1992. He had served as an Intelligence Officer, Army Ranger and left the service with the rank of Major.
McCollum said Senator Wagner has no proven record on critical issues being debated in the campaign, including “military personnel returning to a civilian workforce and having trouble acquiring employment, expanding the rights of people to vote, good paying jobs, traffic jams and funding schools to help our kids compete.”
In a region with such a large military presence, prior military service is an asset for former service people seeking political office.
During interviews with the media, in his campaign literature and speeches before civic and political groups McCollum is quick to disclose that he was an Intelligence officer and served in the U.S. Army Rangers.
State Republican party operatives have asked how could a man as astute as McCollum not know of his status with the U.S. Army. They have also asked him to quit the race.
He also spent three years as required after active duty status as a reservist.
In 1992, according to the McCollum campaign, he left the active reserves in 1992 and entered the 93,000 member IRR or Individual Ready Reserve.
According to U.S. Army Personnel Regulations, at the end of active duty, exiting soldiers are required to spend some period of time in “IRR status” and though they are “on call” in case of a national emergency, they are not required to drill, nor are they paid.
But they are required to update their address and health status at least one a year and may be confused about their status due to the lack of contact with Army Personnel Command.
Democratic party operatives say that these attacks on McCollum, who is African American, are fierce because he has run an effective and competitive campaign.
“We have a ton of momentum,” McCollum said. “You can see the number of volunteers and the level of support for this campaign. I am hearing from the voters that we have a tremendous opportunity on November 3 to win this elections.”
“Gary has a stellar military, business community and now fledgling political record,” said Gaylene Kanoyton, a Democratic Party Chair. “His service in the military is not being questioned here. It is his understanding of when his time of service ended. A lot of military personnel encounter it.”
“I think he can overcome this, but he will have to fight back. He is going to explain this situation which is confusing to a lot of people,” said one high profile Democratic leader who spoke on the condition their name not be used for this article.
“He said he is not a politician,” they said. “But you can’t avoid using the political process to achieve your aims. He will have to get back on track by attacking Wagner on his record on veterans. What has Wagner done for Blacks and the poor people economically?
“And what about all of the political water Wagner has carried for Dominion Power to help them raise utility rates without scrutiny from the lawmakers for five years. Gary is strong and I think he will do well as the campaign moves on.”