The businessman and the general: Messner, Bolduc present vastly different choices to take on Shaheen

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    Bryant "Corky" Messner (Courtesy photograph)

  • Retired Brigadier General Don Bolduc announced a Republican run for Senate on Monday. Paul Steinhauser

  • Don Bolduc

Monitor staff
Published: 8/29/2020 4:23:34 PM

The two men have one thing in common: They entered the U.S. Military at a young age. After that, the paths of Don Bolduc and Corky Messner diverged.

Today, the two Republican challengers to Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who will face off in the New Hampshire state primary Sept. 8, present starkly different choices.

In Bolduc, voters can choose a career military servant, a brigadier general who rose through the ranks under a long line of presidents and now seeks change from the outside. In Messner they can pick an avowed capitalist, a Trump-endorsed corporate lawyer who built a Denver-based law firm and is running to stand up for small businesses.

Here’s a little more about the candidates.

Two paths

For Bolduc, the decision to serve was driven by one key element: family values.

“My grandfather established a requirement for all Bolduc males to serve their country in some capacity,” he said in an interview this month. It didn’t matter what service, Bolduc said. It didn’t matter whether it was active duty. “But he felt that that was a way that he could show his appreciation to a nation that he loved.”

Bolduc says he learned more than the value of service from his grandfather. On the family’s Gilford dairy, produce and maple syrup farm, he observed the virtues of hard work and community. His grandfather was generous with his resources, providing food and work opportunities through the Great Depression, and delivering milk even to those who couldn’t pay.

So Bolduc followed family tradition and served before going to college. It was meant to be an intermediary stage where he figured out what was next. It turned into a lifelong career.

Now, decades into that career, Bolduc has seen the inner workings of the military at every level. He toured the world as a team leader in the Special Forces in the 1990s. Through the Gulf War, and then the Afghanistan War on Terror, he ascended to major, and then to lieutenant colonel, and then to battalion commander in 2005. It took decades, but eventually he made it to brigadier general, in 2013, suddenly working in the highest levels of the military.

Yet despite a decorated career, Bolduc says his time serving has exposed failings of leadership in the armed forces – failings he says can’t be solved from within. Military leadership is bloated, Bolduc believes. The structure needs to change.

“The senior leadership in the military right now has not recognized and will not recognize the mistakes that it’s made,” he said. “And that is to the detriment of progress. The only way to fix the military is to get people from the outside to fix it. That is the Senate. That is the Senate Armed Services Committee.”

One little-discussed problem: The way the military branches interact and disperse resources is inefficient, Bolduc says. By pressing leadership to strip out redundancies across the branches, the Senate could help continue modernizing the country’s military while saving the taxpayer millions, Bolduc adds.

Bolduc says the brand of leadership he’s learned is the one that will serve the seat best.

“I’ve served in peace time; I’ve served in war,” he said. “I know the cost and consequences. And I certainly know the responsibility of our civilian elected officials in this area.”

Messner grew up in a blue collar family in Altoona, Pa., and immediately was drawn to the service.

At the time it was simply the best way to get out of Altoona, he said, looking back. “But it was a great choice,” he added. “A really great choice.”

At 17, he left home to head into the Army, landing at West Point. After graduating, he served in the Army Ranger airborne infantry.

The position brought him to Western Germany on the Berlin wall, leading 150 infantry guarding the Iron Curtain. In that role, not only could he see East Germany, but he could enter it. It was Messner’s first direct experience of a socialist society – “where there was just no hope, no energy, no growth.”

“I remember going into a department store in East Berlin, and there was like seven things in the department store,” Messner said. “People were in line to buy one of those seven things.”

The experience made Messner want to throw himself back into the capitalist system of America.

After the Army, he went into law school, and then to a large law firm – Kirkland and Ellis. He gravitated toward corporate law, helping secure transactions and contracts for companies. It felt like a refreshingly positive use of a law degree: the creation of new relationships rather than the tearing down of others. His clients ranged everywhere from small mom-and-pops to major corporations.

That work has meant Messner is more than familiar with regulations and their effects on businesses.

“My experience over my business career has been that government tends to not work very efficiently or effectively or productively,” he said. “Sometimes they help to get to the right outcome, but many times it’s much more expensive and timely than it needs to be.”

Messner first saw New Hampshire when he was an Army Ranger, helping a friend of his clear out a property. He first bought a home in the state 14 years ago. Ten years ago, he began transitioning his attention to his home in New Hampshire.

Unlike the two sitting Democratic senators, both of whom were New Hampshire governors, Messner is not vying for the seat as an elected official. He says that’s an asset.

“I think I can bring an entirely different perspective,” he said. “The perspective of creating jobs for small businesses and conservative (environmental) conservation.”

Aligned on policy

There isn’t a lot of daylight between Messner and Bolduc on policy. To both candidates, the stakes in the election are elemental: American freedom versus socialism. Both argue that the rational voices have been drowned out in the Democratic party, and that now once-moderate senators like Shaheen are not moderate at all.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the economy was humming. But the leftward tilt of the opposition Democratic party drew both men into the race, they say.

“What I saw happening was the left, Democrats becoming more and more attracted to a socialist agenda,” said Messner. “And it was important to me to get involved and fight to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Everything is being taken away from us, slowly but surely,” Bolduc said.

Most of the candidates’ preferred policies are strongly conservative. They want to shrink the government and privatize as much of it as they can. Bolduc favors privatizing all of the primary care of the Veterans Administration and airport screenings by the Transportation Security Administration.

Bolduc has changed his mind on one piece of veteran’s care: a full service VA hospital in New Hampshire. Though his website proclaims that “New Hampshire desperately needs” that facility, in his interview Bolduc said he no longer believes that. “I’ve changed my position on that,” he said. He now favors insurance to give veterans’ access to existing health care providers.

Messner, on the other hand, wants to focus on reducing businesses regulations. And he said that efforts to reduce the national deficit should take priority.

“The United States is in a very bad position fiscally,” he said. “It just can’t go on like this.”

The first step in reducing that deficit is encouraging the economy to roar back, Messner says.

Both candidates favor the passage of an additional coronavirus relief package in Congress, though both oppose aid to states and cities without strings attached.

Two ways to lead

If the two Senate candidates agree on most policy issues, they differ widely on life experience. Both said that the leadership they’ve become accustomed to is best for the seat.

Bolduc said the military had delivered him unique challenges, ones that could best translate to government.

“I believe that the experience that I have had in the military with leadership is what the state and the country needs now in Washington, D.C,” Bolduc said. He also touted his lifelong New Hampshire roots, drawing another contrast with Messner, who moved in.

“I am the native son. I am the man that was born and raised here. I’m the man that’s going to resonate here. I am not an outsider. And I believe that in order to win this election, you can’t be a same-old-same-old politician, (and) you can’t be a carpet bagger.”

Messner, for his part, has dismissed the miltary leadership as an advantage. With a perspective in both worlds, he argues that civilian leadership is often more useful.

“If you lead in the private sector like you’re in the military, people will quit and go find a job elsewhere,” he said. “So those skills are very, very different.”

He continued: “I know how to get things done. I’m a problem solver. And I know how to persuade people. I’ve had to do the board rooms. I’ve had to do it in transactions. That’s the kind of skillset you need in the Senate to persuade senators. If you go into the Senate and bark orders, you aren’t going to get very far.”

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