Monday, September 21, 2009

Amid raucous health care debate, life’s not easy for black Blue Dogs

Columbus Ledger-Enquirer: For Reps. Sanford Bishop and David Scott, it hasn’t been easy lately being the nation’s only black Blue Dogs.

With the emotional political debate raging over revamping the nation’s health care system, Bishop of Albany and Scott of Atlanta — both members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats as well as the liberal Congressional Black Caucus — have gotten earfuls from constituents of their politically mixed, racially diverse, urban-rural districts.

The more conservative, mostly white, residents of their district complain about the price tag of President Barack Obama’s health care proposals — an estimated $900 billion over 10 years — while the more liberal, mostly black residents argue that health care can’t be fixed without a strong public option.

“I’m damned if I do, damned if I don’t,” Bishop said. “Half my district wants it, half doesn’t.”

Both men said they’re comfortable balancing the fiscal conservatism and strong support for the military that the Blue Dog caucus advocates with the black caucus’s socially progressive platform, which includes pushing for a strong public health option. However, the health care debate has made it tough for Bishop and Scott to walk the moderate fine line that’s defined much of their tenure in the House of Representatives.

Scott learned that last month, when he found a swastika spray painted on a sign outside his Smyrna district office after a contentious town hall meeting on health care reform. One letter sent to his office used a slur before his name.

“The folks are not going to stand for socialized medicine even though negro’s (sic) refuse to stand on their own two feet,” another letter, sent from a Michigan address, reads.

Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University and co-author of “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics,” said a final vote on health care will be a defining moment for Bishop if he backs a plan with Obama’s criteria in it.

“He may lose some of his white supporters,” Black said. “He’ll basically be seen as an Obama liberal in that district. This could be the most crucial vote he casts.”

Bishop represents Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District, which is nestled along the state’s southwestern border with Alabama. The area is a patchwork of small rural towns, peanut farms and Fort Benning, a sprawling military installation that sees large numbers of its troops deployed in heavy rotations during the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Roughly 50 percent of the district’s active registered voters are white and 47 percent are African-American. Though some counties in the district voted for Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Bishop handily defeated his Republican challenger with roughly 69 percent of the vote, according to September figures from the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office.

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