As John Walsh looks toward his final weeks as a U.S. senator, he says he has “no regrets” about his aborted run for a full term – and that he still has some work to do as an officeholder.
Walsh withdrew Aug. 7 as a candidate to retain his Senate seat, in the wake of a plagiarism scandal, but he remained as U.S. senator and is heading back to Washington, D.C., in three weeks, for Congress’ final session of 2014. He said he hopes Congress will take action on issues he’s been working on, such as better mental health treatment for veterans and a tax credit for coal mined on Indian lands.
He’s also been busy during Congress’ current pre-election break, traveling the state to meet with Montanans about issues still before lawmakers.
“I’m continuing to travel around Montana, talking to Montanans, about issues that are important to them,” he said in an interview late last week. “So when I do go back, and legislation comes to the floor and I have to take a vote, I’ll know what’s on the minds of Montanans.”
Walsh, who was lieutenant governor and head of the Montana National Guard before becoming U.S. senator, said he hasn’t even thought about what he’ll do when he leaves office in January.
“I’m focusing on the task at hand, and the task at hand is representing the citizens of Montana as their U.S. senator,” he said during a stop in Helena, where he visited a Farm Service Agency meeting on new farm bill requirements.
Walsh retired from the National Guard as a colonel in 2012, when he decided to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Democrat Steve Bullock.
He’ll be able to continue to draw his National Guard pension when he leaves the Senate, but won’t receive any pension or retirement benefits from his U.S. Senate tenure. Senators must serve at least five years before they’re eligible for a federal pension.
Walsh was pushed last year by fellow Democrats to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Max Baucus, who announced in April 2013 that he wouldn’t run for re-election. When Baucus left early to become U.S. ambassador to China, Bullock appointed Walsh on Feb. 7 to fill out Baucus’ term while Walsh also ran for the seat.
Walsh, 53, started the race a slight underdog to Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Daines.
But in late July, the New York Times reported that Walsh has plagiarized portions of his final paper for his master’s degree at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Two weeks later, Walsh withdrew from the race, saying the plagiarism charges had become a distraction he couldn’t overcome.
Ten days ago, the War College revoked his degree, following its own investigation into the plagiarism charge.
When asked last week if he regretted getting into the Senate contest, Walsh said no, and that it’s been “truly an honor to serve the citizens of Montana.”
“I have no regrets at all,” he said. “My entire adult life has been focused on public service. … Being able to serve in the U.S. Senate – not many people have that opportunity. Being able to continue to serve and fight for our citizens has truly been an honor.”
He also said that he and his family went into the race with their eyes wide open, knowing it could get rough.
“At the end of the day, (my wife) Janet and I knew that politics sometimes is a contact sport,” Walsh said.
Tops on Walsh’s remaining to-do list are bills to help prevent suicide by military veterans and extend a tax break for coal mined on Indian-owned lands. Both may be taken up during the current Congress’ final post-election session, starting Nov. 12
Walsh, the only Iraq War veteran in the Senate, said raising awareness of veterans’ mental health and suicide has been one of his top accomplishments. He noted that President Barack Obama this summer said he’ll take executive action to recruit more mental health professionals for the Veterans Administration health system and increase training to identify veterans at risk of committing suicide – both elements of Walsh’s bill.
Walsh often talks about how 22 military veterans commit suicide each day in the country.
“If we were losing 22 soldiers (a day) on the battlefield, U.S. citizens and our Congress would be up in arms,” he said. “But it seems that there’s been a loss of emphasis.”
His bill, which has bipartisan support and a companion bill in the House, includes further needed steps, he said, such as extending from five to 10 years the time that veterans are covered for VA health services after leaving the service.
Walsh also sponsored a proposal to create an outside commission to examine VA health care, that was folded into a defense spending bill, and has been vocal on public-land issues, such as protecting East Rosebud Creek from development.
As for political campaigns, Walsh hasn’t abandoned those entirely.
Just last week, the state Democratic Party posted a picture of Walsh and his wife, Janet, making telephone calls on behalf of candidates in Montana – including the woman who replaced him on the ballot for U.S. Senate, Amanda Curtis.