Pinellas County veterans could prove to a be a pivotal voting bloc in the race for Florida’s 13th Congressional District.
Both candidates, Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Republican challenger Anna Paulina Luna, have sought to appeal to veterans by placing veteran advocacy among their top priorities. Both have personal stories about why.
Crist, 64, said his top issue for veterans is helping them through the coronavirus pandemic, which is seeing a resurgence across the country, including in Florida. Crist said veteran issues, to him, are a matter of “right versus wrong.”
“They’ve done so much for us, they’re willing to put their lives on the line,” Crist said during a recent interview. “I don’t know how else to say it. We just owe them a debt of gratitude.”
Luna’s campaign did not respond to text messages and phone calls to arrange an interview with the candidate, and did not respond to emailed questions. During a September campaign event, Luna said her top priority was reforming the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' disability rating process. In a previous interview, Luna, an Air Force veteran, said she wants to improve veteran services.
“I don’t think that there’s enough legislators that have gone through the process and understand really where we need to make adjustments to ensure that the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) should be a well oiled machine," Luna said. Her campaign website says she “will fight to ensure that (veterans) get the care, appreciation, and honor deserved.”
Luna, 31, enlisted in 2009 and served for five years stateside at airfields in Missouri and Florida’s Panhandle. She met her husband in the service, an Air Force Combat Controller. He suffered a gunshot wound to the leg in Afghanistan. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs classified him as 0 percent disabled.
His fight for benefits reminded her of Vietnam War veterans still struggling to secure benefits for their Agent Orange exposure, an issue she has spoken about at veteran-focused campaign events.
As a congressman, Crist has twice sought to extend the timeframe of eligibility for veterans suffering from Agent Orange exposure to 2025. So far, that effort has not been successful.
Crist’s biggest legislative win in the U.S. House related to veterans was the passage of the Veteran Treatment Court Coordination Act of 2019, of which he was the primary sponsor. It established a program within the Department of Justice to assist local and state governments with creating veteran treatment courts, which provide support to veterans accused of minor crimes. He also touted his service to about 1,500 veteran constituents who have sought his office’s assistance with their cases.
Crist never served in the military, but said the story of his grandfather inspired him. An immigrant from Greece, he volunteered for the American World War I effort with a promise of citizenship should he return. He was granted citizenship but was left permanently disabled from the war, not receiving benefits until he was in his 70s, Crist said.
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As Florida’s governor from 2007 to 2011, Crist signed into law numerous pieces of legislation related to veterans, including a bill that created the Florida Veterans Foundation. He was in office during the construction and opening of the $31 million, 120-bed Clyde E. Lassen State Veterans' Nursing Home in St. Augustine.
Luna has hit Crist for his record on veterans affairs as governor. She has tweeted a letter, signed by 12 veterans, that said Crist “slashed the state Department of Veterans Affairs budget by nearly $17 million and cut over $16 million in funding for veterans' homes” when he was governor.
Crist said he didn’t recall making that cut, but that he led the state during the Great Recession.
“We had to cut back on a lot of things that were not pleasant," he said. "And that may have been one of them.”
Annual reports from the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs during Crist’s term as governor show total spending at the agency grew every year but one. From the 2009-2010 fiscal year to the 2010-2011 fiscal year — the latter covering the end of Crist’s term and the beginning of Gov. Rick Scott’s term — spending at the department decreased from about $88.4 million to about $76.5 million. Much of that is accounted for by the Clyde E. Lassen nursing home. The facility was opened in 2010 and was therefore a shrinking capital expenditure.
Luna has said she supports veterans' access to CBD, and has been involved with veterans organizations like Force Blue, which “redeploys former Special Operations veterans and military-trained combat divers to assist in marine conservation efforts," according to its website. Luna’s husband is a volunteer diver for Force Blue.
Crist said he supports offering care to veterans who have been exposed to burn pits and said the government should expand veteran access to psychologists and psychiatrists to help curb suicides.
Both candidates have their share of support from the local veteran community.
Sharon Smith, 78, of Pinellas Park called Luna a “veteran’s veteran.”
“That’s important to me because my husband is an Army veteran, was a pilot. Now he’s 91,” she said at a recent Luna event.
Her husband, retired U.S. Army Maj. Collins J. Purchase, did three tours in Vietnam and the Far East and is now 80 percent disabled. She is no fan of Crist’s, calling the congressman “a chameleon.”
“(Luna) respects what we stand for as a country, and she will stand for us in Washington 100 percent rather than all talk and no action,” she said.
Carol Barkalow, 61, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, said she thinks Luna should start at the city, county or state level before running for federal office.
“You need to know St. Petersburg, you need to know Pinellas county, in order to represent it well,” said Barkalow, the executive director of nonprofit Heaven on Earth for Veterans, which provides safe and affordable housing for veterans.
Barkalow, who graduated in the first class at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that included women, was a supporter of former U.S. Rep. David Jolly in 2016. Crist beat Jolly and promptly asked Barkalow to sit on his veterans advisory board, which she now chairs. She said what stands out about Crist is that he “doesn’t talk about himself."
“He’s a guy who’s willing to listen,” she said. "He’s a guy who’s open to hearing what you have to say.”
The 13th Congressional District covers southern Pinellas County. The winner of the race will serve a two-year term. Voting ends Tuesday.
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