Staunch Defender of Veterans Heads Spending Panel

Posted October 8, 2008 at 10:53am

Rep. Chet Edwards’ journey to the halls of Congress began with two World War II idols — his father, a naval aviator, and his mentor, the late Rep. Olin “Tiger” Teague (D-Texas).

So when Edwards was elected to the House, there was little doubt that he would place a high priority on the fight for veterans’ benefits.

The Texas Democrat, 56, is chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies, and has pushed for billions of dollars in new spending in recent years — to serve the growing legions of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as well as to relieve widely acknowledged shortcomings in the veterans system.

Most spectacularly, conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center were considered so substandard that the facility became a cause of national concern by Congress and the administration.

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), the ranking member on Edwards’ Appropriations subcommittee, called his colleague a “real mercenary.”

Edwards “isn’t grandstanding,” Wamp said. “He has excellent resolve.”

Edwards’ role on veterans issues even thrust him briefly into the vice presidential mix earlier this year, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) recommended that Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) pick the Texas lawmaker as his running mate.

Although Edwards did not make the cut — indeed, it was never clear that he was given serious consideration by the Obama campaign — the Texas Democrat says he will continue to provide appropriate funding for veterans’ programs in the 111th Congress while also increasing oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs, particularly its health care sector.

Growing up in a blue-collar family in Corpus Christi, Texas, Edwards aspired to be a professional golfer, like Ben Crenshaw. “Going into college, I did not want to go into politics,” Edwards said in a recent interview. “I liked politics but never dreamed of this.”

During the early 1970s, Edwards attended Texas A&M University. It was a chance encounter with then-Rep. Teague, a longtime House Veterans Affairs’ chairman — whom Edwards dubs his “second father” — that shaped the rest of his life.

While at the university, Edwards was helping organize an event at which Teague was speaking. The two hit it off and kept in touch. After graduation, Edwards said he was wrestling with a major decision since the Vietnam War draft was over: Should he join the military or pursue a civilian career?

“He told me not to feel bad. ‘There is more than one way to serve your country,’” Edwards recalled.

Edwards ended up joining Teague’s office as a legislative assistant. He made his boss a promise to never to forget the nation’s veterans. “I don’t make many promises, but that is one I intend to keep until the day I die,” Edwards said.

One day, several years after joining Teague’s staff, Edwards was driving Teague around when the Congressman threw an idea at his young aide: He should run for his House seat.

“I was 24,” Edwards said. “I nearly wrecked the car.”

When the shock wore off, Edwards accepted the challenge. But victory was not his — not yet — as he narrowly lost the primary to then-Democrat Phil Gramm. (Gramm, a future Senator, subsequently resigned from the House in order to switch parties and then won back the vacant seat as a Republican.)

After the loss, Edwards headed to Harvard University to earn a master’s degree in business administration before winning a seat in the Texas Senate.

He spent the better part of the 1980s in that chamber and he then ran for and won a seat in Congress in 1990.

Edwards hails from the district that includes President Bush’s home in Crawford, and he has managed to keep winning his Republican-leaning district despite several aggressive attempts by the GOP to knock him off.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion have given Edwards awards for his work on veterans issues.

“I can never fully repay my debt of gratitude to those who did serve,” Edwards said.