By Debbie Stevenson
Killeen Daily Herald
Its getting ugly out there.
The war of words between the Fort Hood area's incumbent congressman, U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock, and his Democratic challenger, Killeen lawyer Mary Beth Harrell, has found air and print space from Killeen to Austin, Washington and even Baghdad.
The pair are battling – through area headlines and blogs – over everything from Fort Hood's garrison budget woes to the appropriation of funding for a $7 million, seventh gymnasium for the post.
In her arguments, Harrell touts her background as the wife of a retired soldier and the mother of two active-duty soldiers, while taking Carter to task on every subject she can, from owning oil stocks to what she calls his latest faux pas, telling defense contractors this week in Killeen that all the Army had to do was ask for the money to fix its garrison shortfalls.
"When I'm in Congress, they won't have to ask – I will be asking them," Harrell said Thursday. "I wouldn't wait for these generals to come to me and tell me what they need. As a congresswoman, I would be on the phone with the generals and the ranking civilians on Fort Hood asking them what do you need from Congress to do your job."
Carter, known as "Judge" to his inner circle, has surfaced on occasion to counter the criticism and tout his Texas roots and time on the Texas bench.
"I was already expecting a nasty campaign this fall," Carter wrote in a July 6 fundraising letter circulated to supporters that sparked the current round of outrage from his challenger.
"My opponent is an attorney from New York who now lives in Killeen. She has attacked me for securing money for the soldiers and families at Ft. Hood. She has attacked me for inheriting stock from my father who worked his entire life to accumulate these assets to provide for his family's security," Carter states in the letter. "And she has joined with national liberals who call for a cut and run' strategy in the War on Terror."
Harrell has fought back through Democratic Internet bloggers, who have been having a field day with Carter's letter. In her response, she notes her family moved to Texas through the Army and Fort Hood in 1987. Her law degree was earned in San Antonio after her husband retired from the Army, and she notes she is holding Carter accountable for his voting record on oil interests, not the ExxonMobil stock he inherited.
In a story with an area newspaper, Carter indicated he planned to sell the stocks as he diversifies his portfolio.
Amy Ellsworth, his press secretary, confirmed the sale had not taken place as of Thursday, but insisted the stocks have not governed Carter's positions in Congress.
"He is not a stock guy," Ellsworth said. "The long and short of it is, it was an inheritance that he and his brother got from his father about a year ago when he passed away."
The battle over the Iraq war intensified Thursday as Harrell received a show of support from a group of Democratic veteran candidates for Congress who have called themselves the "Band of Brothers."
The eight veterans drove into Georgetown on Thursday in a show of support for Harrell and to stand against what they called unfair attacks and "dirty politics."
The delegation included Dan Dodd, running in the 3rd District; Roger Waun in the 13th District; John Courage in the 21st District; Rick Bolanos in the 23rd District and Ted Ankrum, running in the 10th District as an independent. All are facing GOP incumbents.
"It incensed them that he has the nerve to come out and say these things that are so untrue and unfairly use his position," said Ken Stewart, the group's spokesman, about Carter's comments.
"He, himself, has said he has not known anyone in the military, has never served in the military, does not know anything about the military," Stewart said. "For him to make such statements about someone who has always supported the military is an unfair attack."
Carter's campaign staff countered that Harrell has openly supported U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Vietnam veteran who has called for an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq.
"The fact is, she is supporting John Murtha's position on the war – and that is to immediately begin withdrawing troops," said Richard Hudson, in an e-mail from Washington. "I am surprised anyone with a child in this war would be aligning herself with someone who said these things about our troops."
During a Washington news conference in November, a tearful Murtha said, "our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency."
Murtha also sparked outrage in May by saying Marines in Haditha had "killed innocent civilians in cold blood" after allegedly responding to a roadside bomb ambush that killed a Marine during a patrol Nov. 19. Murtha this week was sued by one of the Marines, saying he is spreading "false and malicious lies" about him and other Marines in the media.
Hudson said Carter "fundamentally disagrees with Mrs. Harrell's position that we should immediately begin withdrawing troops."
"He believes this policy sends the wrong message to our troops and the terrorists they are facing and he will continue to speak out against it," he said. "There is no substitute for victory in Iraq. Either we defeat the terrorist over there, or we will face them on American soil."
Fighting words also continued to swirl around a gym that was approved to replace an aging facility at West Fort Hood. Funding for the project was secured earlier this year by U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, Fort Hood's former congressman until Texas' redistricting, and supported by Carter.
Harrell said Thursday the gym should take a back seat to making sure Fort Hood has the money it needs to keep lights on in the buildings it already has.
There is "no excuse" for the post being more than $12 million in the hole, she said. "That $7 million for the gym could have kept the lights on."
It is a sentiment that has resonated with Herald readers, with 93 percent of Web poll respondents saying they wanted to see Congress reorganize the military budget to see that the military had enough money for garrison operations and military health care.
Not all the sparring is on a serious note.
The Washington Post in April got a kick out of an apparent photo opportunity for Carter with soldiers during a visit to Iraq.
"Here's a very nice shot of Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), whose district includes Fort Hood and its 4th Infantry Division. As always, some troops from home were selected to meet with the congressman," the paper mused. "Apparently somebody had a sense of humor. Carter found out afterward that this warm "grip 'n' grin" shot was with Sgt. 1st Class Rob Harrell, whose mother, Mary Beth Harrell, a lawyer in Killeen, Tex., will be Carter's Democratic opponent in November."
Ellsworth said Carter was proud to have been able to meet Harrell's son in Iraq.
"He's still a soldier over there fighting for our country and we're going to support whoever's son it is," Ellsworth told the Herald on Thursday, adding that after he returned from the visit, Carter called "Mary Beth to let her know her son is OK and let her know what a great job he is doing for his country."
Contact Debbie Stevenson at email@example.com