WASHINGTON — When Congressman Mark Takano took the stage over the weekend at a student veterans convention in Orlando, Fla., it marked his first public address as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs — a position that will enable him to set priorities in Congress for veterans for the next two years.
Takano, 58, stood in front of some 2,000 people, many of them in their 20s and 30s and using their GI Bill benefits to earn degrees. They convened for the Student Veterans of America National Convention, an annual event designed to educate and inspire a generation of veterans preparing to enter the workforce.
In a speech that went far off script, Takano, D-Calif., spoke to the group about the increasing diversity among veterans and his plan to ensure everyone was recognized for their service — a recognition that he feels has been lacking during the past two years.
He listed overlooked minority groups, starting with women veterans — an acknowledgement that received some applause from the crowd. When Takano noted the importance of appreciating LGBTQ veterans, the applause grew even louder.
“Then I said, ‘Oh, I guess it’s safe to say in here that I’m the first openly gay person of color elected to Congress,’ and the whole convention erupted,” Takano said, reflecting on the moment Tuesday on Capitol Hill. “That’s when I said, ‘You guys don’t fit stereotypes of what we think about veterans, as socially conservative…’ I’ve heard this generation of veterans is different, but I experienced it for the first time. That was what was amazing about Orlando.”
Takano represented a historic first when he was elected to Congress six years ago. The 116th Congress, sworn into office last week, included even more firsts — the first Muslim women and Native American women in Congress, the youngest woman and some states’ first black and Latina congresswomen.
The new class of House members is a “very positive force,” Takano said — one he wants to harness.
A few new members have requested to join the House VA committee. Takano attributes the interest to the fact that some incoming members pledged to refuse money from political action committees. The VA committee doesn’t draw corporate interests the way others do, he explained.
It was uncertain as of Thursday when the committee roster would be decided.
“I’m delighted, some are even worried there’s not going to be space for them,” Takano said. “I’m heartened that people are coming to the committee really wanting to dig in and do things for veterans.”
Takano has been part of the committee throughout his time as a congressman. He joined, in part, because it made sense for his district in Riverside County, Calif., the site of March Air Reserve Base and a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital. Norton Air Base and Twentynine Palms are also close by.