U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud, a Democratic candidate for governor, faces growing criticism from his opponents in the race over the Department of Veterans Affairs scandal, which entered a new phase Friday with the resignation of Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Republican Gov. Paul LePage and independent Eliot Cutler attacked Michaud, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, for not acting sooner on deficiencies in the department, which led to patient backlogs and cover-ups by officials.
“What is most stunning is that the VA Office of Inspector General has issued 18 reports to Congress since 2005, exposing long-term gross mismanagement of health care for our nation’s veterans,” LePage said in a prepared statement, which came from his gubernatorial office, not his campaign office. “For years Michaud has told the people of Maine he has inside knowledge on what happens at the VA, but he took little to no action about this scandal until an election year. We now find out that he should have known about these deficiencies for nine years.”
Cutler was equally critical.
“Mike Michaud owes Maine people and vets all over the country some answers,” he said in an interview Friday. “One, is he proud of his leadership on these issues over the last nine years? Two, after hearings uncovered these problems nine years ago, what has he accomplished to fix the problem? And three, does he think he bears any responsibility, and if he does, what does he think he should do about it?”
Michaud issued a statement through his congressional office Friday afternoon in response to LePage’s comments.
“It’s outrageous to me that Governor LePage is choosing this very serious moment to play such blatant politics. Our veterans deserve better,” Michaud said.
“I have worked hard for veterans since Day One, and I am proud of my record,” he said. “I’m also proud of the bipartisan relationship I have with Chairman Jeff Miller on the VA Committee. I have always believed that we deliver the best results for our veterans when we work together toward our common goals, and that is exactly what I will continue to do. This is a time for us all to move forward toward real and immediate results for our veterans – not to play politics.”
Dan Rafter, Michaud’s congressional spokesman, said Michaud has sponsored or co-sponsored 506 bills related to veterans since his first term in Congress, and 81 percent were bipartisan efforts with Republicans. The 506 bills account for nearly 20 percent of all legislation with Michaud’s name on it.
Rafter said 110 of the bills passed in the House.
Michaud released a statement calling for Shinseki’s resignation about 10:40 p.m. Thursday, only a few hours after his staff told reporters that Michaud was reserving judgment on whether the embattled VA chief should step down.
Rafter said late Thursday that Michaud felt the secretary had become a lightning rod for criticism, and that Michaud had been increasingly disappointed with the information that had come out about long waiting lists at VA clinics and efforts to cover up any problems, as detailed in an inspector general’s report released Wednesday.
In an interview Friday, Rafter said Michaud didn’t know when he issued his statement Thursday night that Obama would meet with Shinseki on Friday.
“In fact last night, just prior to our public statement going out, Rep. Michaud called the secretary to give him a heads-up and tell him personally that he thought he should step aside,” Rafter said. “I can tell you the secretary didn’t address (the Obama meeting) with the congressman, either.”
The criticism leveled at Michaud reflects a broader political assault on members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, regardless of party.
The Republican National Committee already has begun targeting Democrats who are running for Senate. Crossroads GPS, a political action committee led by Karl Rove, just spent $450,000 on a television ad targeting Sen. Mark Begish, D-Alaska, who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has targeted Republican congressmen and women for not being more aggressive with the VA and for using the scandal to score political points.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Florida, who works alongside Michaud as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, told CNN on Wednesday that the controversy should not turn into a “political football.”
“I have tried since I have been chairman of this committee to work with both sides of the aisle,” he said. “My ranking (Democratic) member (Michaud) and I have received briefings together. We have worked together on the subpoenas that the committee has, in fact, passed … But this is a bipartisan issue, we are talking about Americans, people that have worn the uniform.”
LePage said he wants to be assured that none of the problems with the VA exist in Maine, where the agency operates the Togus VA Medical Center and several clinics. Veterans groups and VA officials have said the Maine facilities generally perform well.
“Based on Congressman Michaud’s lack of action about this scandal and the cover-ups in the VA, I will do everything in my power to ensure Maine’s veterans are treated with the care and services they have earned and deserve,” the governor said. “In this administration, actions speak louder than words.”
Cutler said Michaud failed in a leadership role on the issue.
“The political issue in Maine is whether Michaud has demonstrated the leadership and effectiveness abilities that deserve support of Maine voters to make him governor,” Cutler said.
The Maine Republican Party also sought to pin blame on Michaud, sending statements from three lawmakers who are veterans saying the congressman has “let down veterans” and his reaction is “too little, too late.”
Mark Brewer, a political scientist at the University of Maine, said he’s not surprised that Michaud’s political opponents are using the VA scandal against him.
“It’s clear that, for Michaud, veterans issues has been his number one priority since he’s been in Washington,” Brewer said. “It’s also safe to say he recognizes how important veterans are to elections here in Maine. They are a big voting group and he thinks he has a fair amount of support from them. Anything that could weaken that could potentially be problematic.”
Ronald Schmidt, an associate professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the degree to which the VA scandal affects Michaud as a candidate will be dictated largely by his opponents, and by voters.
“It’s very difficult to get much done quickly on a congressional committee,” Schmidt said. “But it won’t do Michaud any good to talk about that. The best thing he can do is talk about what he has achieved on that committee.”
Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at: