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Taking the Hill: New Doc Chronicles War Veterans on the Campaign Trail

StoryDecember 12, 2006
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In November 2006, more than 50 veterans of the U.S. armed forces from around the country competed for seats in Congress. Since World War II, there had never been this many veterans running for national office at the same time. “Taking the Hill,” a new documentary by the award-winning filmmaking team of Brent and Craig Renaud, follows five of these candidates as they hit the campaign trail. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: One subplot of this year’s midterm elections was the record number of candidates—more than 50—who once served in the armed forces. A new documentary premiering tonight on the Discovery Times Channel chronicles five of the candidates as they hit the campaign trail: Rick Bolanos of Texas, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Andrew Horne of Kentucky, Eric Massa of New York and Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania. Their range of experience runs from Vietnam to Iraq, but they all ran as Democrats in opposition to the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War.

The documentary is called Taking the Hill, and it’s by the filmmaker brothers Craig and Brent Renaud, our colleagues here at the Downtown Community Television Center. Their last documentary, Off to War, followed members of the Arkansas National Guard as they deployed to Iraq. Craig Renaud joins us now here in the studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Craig.

CRAIG RENAUD: Thanks for having us.

AMY GOODMAN: So this film, lay it out for us.

CRAIG RENAUD: Well, we had actually just finished Off to War, and we got a call from a veteran who was organizing an event. Eric Massa and a guy by the name of Mike Lyon were organizing a gathering of about 42 veterans at the time, who were going to come out to Capitol Hill and make an announcement and declare their candidacies for office.

And so, we went down to film it and were just amazed, because this was back in February. It was months before any of the generals were calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. And here, you had a group of military veterans who had fought in wars, standing in front of Capitol Hill, saying things that hadn’t been said yet, telling basically President Bush that he could no longer use the military as a political backdrop for political purposes. So we were just amazed to see so many veterans to come out and actually run for Congress. So we started filming the documentary at that point.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, of these five, one won?

CRAIG RENAUD: Of the five that we followed, only one won. Out of the 62 that ran, only four won. So, we were amazed by that, because this was the most veterans you had running for office at any time in U.S. history. And at the end of the campaign, now, 2007 Congress will have less veteran representation since before World War I. So, you know, considering how much talk there was about the war in Iraq in this particular election, it was surprising to us that so few veterans were actually elected to Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to an excerpt of Taking the Hill. In this clip, New York candidate, Eric Massa, is on the campaign trail, when he gets a visit and some campaign orders from Illinois Congressmember and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel.

ERIC MASSA: Congressman. Thank you, sir.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: Hi, Eric. How are you?

ERIC MASSA: Thank you for being here today.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: Yeah, not a problem. How are you doing?

ERIC MASSA: I’m doing well.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: I don’t want you tonight on TV to be angry.

ERIC MASSA: All right.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: OK, just take it down a notch.



ERIC MASSA: There are 62—62—veterans who are Democrats, who are running for the House of Representatives. All of us have a wonderful shot at taking that experience, taking the flag out of the hands of Tom DeLay and showing this president he can no longer use our military as a backdrop for political purposes.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Most of those people in Congress don’t have your experience. I’m not asking you to be angry or anything like that. But you can say words and have the courage to say it, that we do not have enough people like you right now. And that’s why I hope you win, and I’ll do everything I can to help.

ERIC MASSA: Thank you very much. We’ll catch you in a little bit. We have to head to our next event. Thank you all very, very much. God bless.

I never had an admiral walk on my ship that wasn’t inspecting me, so I think that anybody in the military knows that a visit from higher headquarters often brings bad news. He wants to fine tune me. He wants to refine me. My problem is, I am who I am, and that’s — I’m not very refinable.

He thinks I’m too fiery. Did I sound angry?

GIRL IN VAN: You always sound angry.

ERIC MASSA: I don’t think they like the idea that I brought up all the other veterans running. But I do, everywhere I go. Obviously Congressman Emanuel is not a veteran, and so when the guy sits there and says, “You have what we need,” the implication is that people who are not veterans in Congress don’t have what we need. And that rankles some people.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: They’re going to support you?

ERIC MASSA: Well, he said, “Hey, listen. I’ll invest money wherever there’s money already invested.” So he’s following that. So do you have people I can call? Friends, family? $100, $500? $1,000? Max is $4,200.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: See you, guys. Good luck.

ERIC MASSA: Nice to meet you, Rahm.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: I hope that phone call worked.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I hope so. We’ll follow it up.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: Can I grab Eric for one second? Do you mind?

You’ve got to raise $200,000 per month for the next four months.


REP. RAHM EMANUEL: Otherwise, it ain’t going to happen.

ERIC MASSA: I agree.

REP. RAHM EMANUEL: All right. So don’t let your family down. Second, you’ve got to smile, have fun. If all people see is anger, they’ll see anger. Do you ever remember a person not likeable winning? OK, be likeable.

ERIC MASSA: All right, got it.

AMY GOODMAN: Rahm Emanuel. He has got a hold of the purse strings for the Democrats who run for Congress, head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, speaking to Eric Massa, Eric Massa of New York, who is a veteran of Desert Storm. He ran in the Rochester area of New York and lost to Randy Kuhl, the Republican incumbent.

Craig Renaud, with us now. Craig, explain what we just watched in this excerpt of Taking the Hill. You basically have Eric Massa wired, because you’re following him, and Rahm Emanuel is taking him to the side and saying, “Don’t be angry. Don’t be angry.”

CRAIG RENAUD: Right. Yeah, you know, this was an issue for all the candidates throughout the campaign. It’s just — one of the things that I think a lot of them didn’t realize early on, when they first declared, was how much money it was going to take to run their campaign successfully. And one of the benchmarks that they were all given was basically, until you can raise $1 million on your own, you’re not really a viable candidate.

And so, Eric Massa, in particular, throughout his entire campaign, he was very successful at raising a good amount of money. By the end of the campaign, he raised over $1 million without any corporate-backed money, pretty much on individual donations. But yet, he was never fully able to get the support of the party. So what you see in this scene is a visit by Rahm Emanuel to basically assess and evaluate Eric’s campaign at this point, in terms of his ability to raise money.

AMY GOODMAN: Has Rahm Emanuel respond to this film yet, Taking the Hill?

CRAIG RENAUD: We’re not sure. You know, we’re not sure. We haven’t heard yet.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was exactly he saying about the amount of money?

CRAIG RENAUD: You know, it’s something that was pretty out there and open in terms of the amount of money that Eric needed to raise at that point. You know, one of the things that he had said is that he needed to raise $200,000 per month.

AMY GOODMAN: This is what Rahm Emanuel told him?

CRAIG RENAUD: Exactly, to be viable, to be able to compete and to have any chance of beating the incumbent that he was running against. One of the things that happened with Eric Massa at the very end of the campaign, you know, according to Eric, the Republican National Committee came into his district, spent $750,000 in the last week or so of the campaign. And so, even though Eric was able to raise $1 million, he didn’t have any money left at the end to counter that, and he actually ended up losing by less than 1 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tammy Duckworth is one of the Iraq War veterans who ran for Congress in November, profiled in Taking the Hill. She served as an Army helicopter pilot in Iraq. She lost both her legs and damaged her right arm when her helicopter was shot down in an RPG attack north of Baghdad. Tammy Duckworth ran for Congress on the Democratic ticket in Illinois’s Sixth District. She lost by just 2 percent of the vote. She was recently appointed the director of Illinois Veterans’ Affairs Department by the governor. Tammy Duckworth joins us now in Chicago. Welcome to Democracy Now!

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Good morning. How are you today?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s very good to have you with us. As you reflect back on your time, as you ran, talk about what you think worked and didn’t, and also about what we just listened to, Rahm Emanuel, in this case, talking to a vet in upstate New York, about what he had to do to make money.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I think what worked for me was just getting out there and being myself and talking to people. What worked was the fact that I was not a career politician, but someone who has served this country my entire adult life. And then that — you know, people understood the drive, the commitment of us veterans who were running, because none of us ever wanted to become politicians. We were running because we came from a place where we served our nation and we’re just appalled that our nation was headed down this wrong path.

The conversation that you just watched with Eric Massa and Congressman Emanuel was really funny, because I had the same conversations. I ended up raising over $4 million in my race. Overall, we spent about $6 million. But, you know, just to — same thing happened to me that happened with Eric. The Republican Party came in at the last minute and spent an extra $2 million. They ended up spending $11 million against me.

And so, you know, there was just such an overwhelming flood of money on the other side, that you get to a point where no matter how much money you raise, they were going to outspend you. And in these close races, it does come down to money. I mean, I lost by 2,000 votes. Eric lost by, you know, less than 1 percent. And it was that same way all across the country. You can be out there, talking truth to power, but ultimately at the end, we just couldn’t withstand the tide of money that was coming against us.

AMY GOODMAN: If the Democratic Party had given you more money, could you have done it?

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: If there had been money spent right at the end to counter the flood of negative, I think so. You know, we lost by 2,000 votes, and most of that was a result of the 74 pieces of negative mail that came out against me and the last $2 million in negative TV commercials that came out right in the last, I would say, three days. So, you know, it comes down to money. The Republican Party went into debt at the last minute.

And I think the speaker drew a line in the sand. My district was one where my western border was Denny Hastert’s and the eastern border was Rahm Emanuel’s, so I always joked that my district was a DMZ between the two parties.

AMY GOODMAN: Tammy Duckworth, why did you decide to run? And talk a little about your experience in Iraq.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, it was sort of slow in coming. In Iraq, I wasn’t one of these people who went out and kicked down doors. I flew helicopters. So I was sort of above the fray in a lot of things. And then, right at the end there, I was injured.

And what got me thinking about running was the fact that in March of 2005 — I was injured in November 2004 — so just about three months after I was injured, I was asked to testify to the Senate and then to the House Veteran Affairs Committee about what I thought injured veterans were going to need in terms of support from this country for the rest of their lives. And I went into the Senate VA Committee, and I had prepared this testimony, done a lot of research, the senators put their arms around me, had their pictures taken with me, called me a war hero and all of these things, and then the chairman of the committee proceeded to ignore everything I had to say and tried to get me to say things that were not true in the middle of this hearing. And I realized this man does not care what I have to say. He has an agenda, and it is not the interest of the veterans. And he doesn’t care.

And then a few weeks after that, I found out that they had cut funding for research out of the VA budget by $9 million, to include funding for amputee research. I still had stitches in my leg from where they took my leg off, and I find out that after I testified on the Hill, they cut funding for amputee research. And that just made me mad. You don’t want to get a bunch of vets mad, because we stand up and fight for what we think is right then.

And so it was a slow progression of realizing that people were not listening to us. People were not listening to the military commanders on the ground and to those of us who had come home. And just getting to the point where you decided, you know, maybe it is time for me to do something. Maybe it is time for my generation to step forward, because certainly the Vietnam generation had, and the World War II generation had before them.

AMY GOODMAN: Tammy Duckworth, I’m looking at a transcript of an interview that CNN senior national correspondent John Roberts did with you right after you won the Democratic primary in Illinois, asking if your, quote, “narrow victory indicated maybe this idea of running Iraq war vets for the Democratic Party isn’t as hot an idea as some Democrats originally thought it was.” Later in the interview, Roberts noted that some political analysts, who he emphatically described as “very smart,” don’t think that the Iraq War veteran thing is going to work for the Democratic Party and that you’re not going to win the overall race and that you’re being held out there as sacrificial lambs just to get the Democrats a little more credibility. Your response?

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: Well, my race wasn’t focused on the Iraq War. My race was focused on healthcare. And I think the best explanation of how well we did was the fact that any time my opponent and I competed for an endorsement, where we were given equal shot at taking the endorsement, I won. I won every single newspaper endorsement: the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Daily Herald. Every single major newspaper endorsement in the district, I won. I won the Fraternal Order of Police endorsement after they initially had endorsed my opponent in the primary. And any time that it was a third party, nonpartisan, unbiased, critical look at the two of us on all of the issues, I came away with the endorsement. So I think it was important that I had focused my campaign not so much on Iraq, as on the need for change in this country. But ultimately, we didn’t have the money that my opponent did.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Renaud, this film was scheduled to air before the election by Discovery Times, but it didn’t. It’s airing tonight.

CRAIG RENAUD: Yeah. There was some discussion early on when we first started filming this about possibly doing this as two parts: one part that would air before the election and another part after the election, to show the results. And then, as we went along, the decision was made basically to wait until after the election. The concern really was that, you know, especially with all these candidates being Democrats, all the veteran candidates being Democrats, the concern mainly was, you know, not influencing the election one way or the other.

AMY GOODMAN: Tammy Duckworth, do you think if this had run when it was scheduled to run, it would have made a difference?

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: You know, I don’t know. I think that ultimately, in my race, it was about money and just being so totally outspent by the other side. I think for some of the other candidates, it may have helped a little bit. But this election cycle really wasn’t — yes, overall, the theme was about Iraq, but I think if you look at the individual races where you had an open seat and you didn’t have an incumbent where you could sort of rail against their vote on the war, it wasn’t about the war always. It was about, you know, the change in direction on healthcare and those things.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have plans to run in 2008, Tammy? We just have 10 seconds.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: I haven’t ruled it out. But, you know, right now I have a job to do to advocate for veterans, and I’m going to work as hard as I can on this new mission.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Renaud, when does this film air tonight?

CRAIG RENAUD: It airs tonight at 9:00 p.m. on the Discovery Times Channel.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. Craig Renaud, together with his brother Brent Renaud, Arkansas filmmakers, have directed the film Taking the Hill, premiering tonight. And Tammy Duckworth ran for Congress. Thanks so much for both being with us.

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