Does military service influence the veteran vote? - Salish Current
July 28, 2023
Does military service influence the veteran vote?
Kai Uyehara

Army veteran Steve Tatham enjoys refreshments at the Veterans of Foreign Wars post bar in Bellingham. When it comes to local politics, Tatham cares about rent increases, a new jail and the Whatcom County sheriffs race. Do other veterans share those concerns? (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2023)

July 28, 2023
Does military service influence the veteran vote?
Kai Uyehara

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Steve Tatham sits at the bar of the William Matthews Veteran of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1585 in Bellingham, sipping a drink and dipping his hand into a bucket of Red Vines. Tatham is a 74-year-old veteran of the Army (“the only real branch of the military,” he jokes with his Coast Guard friend sitting in the next seat). Tatham calls himself a reasonable Republican and says he votes as often as he can.

In 2020, veterans voted at a higher rate (74%) than non-veterans (66%), according to the census bureau. Approximately 13,000 veterans live in Whatcom County, making up nearly 8% of the population. 

Serving in the military affords a distinctive perspective on daily life in the U.S., but it doesn’t mean veterans vote the same way. In 2020, for example, the Military Times found that about 52% of veterans said they would vote for Donald Trump for president and about 42% said they planned to vote for Joe Biden. Older veterans were more likely to say they preferred Trump while younger ones were more likely to prefer Biden.

Local veterans may have different voting priorities about the housing crisis, a new jail, immigration law and healthcare, but they want to be involved in elections and say they will always vote to care for each other.

Housing crisis

From his seat at the VFW bar on North State Street, overlooking apartments and the Port of Bellingham, Tatham said that it’s a shame to see that the skyline now is apartments: “Young people can’t afford to buy a house now.”

Tatham, who’s lived in Bellingham since 2003, also worries that more downtown apartment buildings will increase traffic. 

The housing crisis is dire, especially when it comes to unhoused veterans across the county, said Cindy Mellema, auxiliary president of the VFW Bellingham post. 

Cindy Mellema is the auxiliary president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bellingham post. Through the auxiliary, she is working to help homeless veterans in the woods of north Whatcom County. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2023)

“One main focus as auxiliary president is to, through the Opportunity Council, get every veteran we can off the street and into housing — which is difficult because rent is so awful,” Mellema said.

The VFW fundraises for local veterans, provides them with programs and maintains the Bellingham post space for veterans to come eat, drink and gather with other folks with similar experiences, Mellema said. The VFW auxiliary operates an outreach program with the Kendall North County Christ the King Church to serve the basic needs of unhoused veterans living in the woods around Maple Falls, Kendall and the Peaceful Valley area. 

Mellema believes the next Whatcom County Sheriff will be crucial in addressing the homeless veteran crisis. Many local veterans share her focus on local law enforcement as the election approaches.

While working as a customs and border patrol agent for 12 years on the United States/Canada border, Tatham received a list of arrests from the Whatcom County jail every couple of weeks and was disturbed by the number of repeat offenders. 

“It’s just a revolving group of these guys,” Tatham said; and the state of the jail doesn’t help offenders. “If you don’t go in there bad, you’ll come out bad. The showers, the medical facilities, the mental health, everything in there is inadequate. It’s got to be modernized because it’s not only dangerous for the prisoner, it’s dangerous for the workers.”

proposal for a 0.2% sales tax to generate revenue for a larger jail and services for those experiencing homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness will appear on the November ballot. 

Immigration and opportunity

Justin Esparza, 26, is an Army veteran and student at Western Washington University where he works at the school’s Veteran Services Office. Esparza is from a Mexican family.

“When immigration comes up, that’s when my ears perk up because it affects my family and so many others that I know,” Esparza said. “I’m defending the right to have families like mine come over. Do good, do your part and you’re part of the community — we’re going to accept you no matter what.” 

But in the past few years, Esparza has felt like this American ideal is going out the window. He wants to elect officials who reflect his values. 

Small players in the healthcare game

Accessing healthcare from the Veterans Administration is also a top issue for Esparza, as it is with many veterans nationwide. 

“I’m having to deal with health issues that have come from my service, and dealing with healthcare is pretty difficult; it’s a very time-consuming thing,” Esparza said. He’s heard similar experiences from his friends who deal with disabilities. “We’re just a small piece in such a big, big game so it makes sense that the timeliness isn’t there, but at the same time, we’re messing with people’s money, how they’re going to pay for rent, food and stuff like that.”

Tatham said the VA has come a long way and does well with providing resources in Whatcom County, as long as veterans put a little work into it. That’s a view he shared with Terry Asp, a 79-year-old Air Force veteran.

Asp wanted to see tax breaks for veteran retirees, and said that veterans deserve benefits and receiving them shouldn’t be political. 

Taking action

Asp doubted he could make any difference when it came to local politics.

Whenever a state issue arises that he cares about, Asp said he writes to U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell. He said Murray’s office occasionally writes back, though he doesn’t hear anything from Cantwell’s. 

Asp votes every election because, he said, “that’s what I should do.” However, he doesn’t believe his vote makes a difference locally because he leans towards being more conservative. 

Esparza has never voted. When he first joined the service around voting age, he didn’t think his vote would matter either, because “being in the military, I felt like either way I’m being told what to do by someone else,” he said. 

He said he felt content that way until he began examining his values nearing the last presidential election season and realizing that there were issues that made him upset. His fiancé finally convinced him to get involved. 

Local impact

Now, Esparza recognizes the impact of local politics on his daily life and plans to move his registration from Nebraska to Whatcom County, but he finds it difficult to stay updated on local election issues. 

Justin Esparza, 26, is a student at Western Washington University and U.S. Army veteran. Though he has never voted, he’s decided that now is the time. Esparza cares about immigration law and accessible healthcare for veterans. (Kai Uyehara / Salish Current © 2023)

But when U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen visited WWU’s Veteran Services Office in late June, Esparza felt like he’d been brought into the conversation.

“I’ve never heard of anyone taking the time to do that, just to take in the opinions of veterans,” Esparza said. “We take care of each other, but there are definitely things above our head, so it’s kind of nice to give our opinion to someone who might be able to change something.”

Tatham also appreciates public interaction from electoral candidates. He enjoyed seeing local candidates at Bellingham’s pride parade and is very impressed by candidates and their teams who come around Whatcom neighborhoods doorbelling. 

Though familiarity with candidates may not be established yet for many veterans, the election of Whatcom County’s next sheriff is the primary focus for Tatham, and for Mellema. She wants the VFW to host a discussion at the post about the veteran homelessness crisis, between candidates Blaine Police Chief Donnell Tanksley, a 22-year veteran of the Navy and Air Force, and Whatcom County Undersheriff Doug Chadwick, who has been with the Whatcom sheriff’s office for 28 years. 

“The sheriff’s race is the big one for us and I’m voting Donnell Tanksley,” Tatham said. “We need to have some people coming in from outside with a fresh look on things and hopefully give it some new ideas and get moving in a better direction.”

Tanksley is among those who say that experience in the military has given a larger perspective when it comes to his work.

Other veterans on the ballot are Bellingham mayoral candidate Mike McAuley, who served in the Marine Corps, and Whatcom County Executive candidate Barry Buchanan, who served in the Navy. 

Taking care of each other

Tatham believes the military gives enlisters discipline and a sense of something bigger than themselves as they travel outside the United States and interact with many diverse service members and civilians. Tatham looks for candidates who share these characteristics, show initiative and have seen the world. 

But the military mindset isn’t part of the voting decision for some veterans. 

Talking about politics is just as taboo as debating religion with his friends at the VFW, Asp said. 

“I’m proud to be a veteran, but I try not to use that as my identity,” Esparza said. “You definitely have your veteran organizations out there that tend to have a voice and to be able to swing things sometimes, but I feel like it’s one side of the veteran community. Not every veteran thinks the same.”

But despite differences between branches, politics or ages, veterans share one common goal. 

“One thing that I think most veterans can get behind is just ensuring that we’re all okay and we’re all being taken care of,” Esparza said. “We will defend each other no matter what and we want each other to be okay at the end of the day, because we all served in one way or another.”

— Reported by Kai Uyehara

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