Sep 21, 2009

WASHINGTON — For Reps. Sanford Bishop and David Scott , it hasn't been easy lately being Congress' only black "Blue Dogs."

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

The more conservative, mostly white, residents of their districts complain about the price 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" alternative to private health insurance.

"I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't," Bishop said. "Half my district wants it, half doesn't."

While both men say they're comfortable balancing the fiscal conservatism and strong support for the military that the Blue Dog Coalition advocates with the black caucus's socially progressive platform — which includes pushing for a strong public health option — the health care debate has made it tough for them 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.

One letter sent to his office addressed him as "Nigga David Scott."

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

Merle Black , a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University and co-author of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics," said a final vote on health care would be a defining moment for Bishop if he backed 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 near Columbus that's seen large numbers of its troops deployed in heavy rotations for the 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 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.

In the 2nd District , the priorities are "God, country, hard work and guns, and not necessarily in that order, and that's for the black and white community," said Bishop, who was one of only four Congressional Black Caucus members to vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war.

Bishop deftly navigates his district's political currents because "he can deal with the farmers like he can the soldiers," according to retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White , a former commander of the U.S. Army Infantry Center and Fort Benning .

"He has a sense about him that people truly believe he understands their needs,"said White, who worked with Bishop to help build a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus .

Still, as Bishop stood facing a crowd of 530 constituents last month at that museum, he was forced to remind the gathering of his moderate bona fides.

"My vote doesn't belong to Nancy Pelosi and it doesn't belong to Barack Obama ," Bishop, a nine-term congressman who co-chaired the president's Georgia campaign efforts, said in response to intense questioning. "It belongs to the people in the 2nd District of Georgia ."

Bishop remains open to the idea of a public option and encourages competition among insurance companies. He's willing to consider alternatives, however, in order to achieve improvement, such as member-owned, nonprofit health cooperatives that negotiate directly with a network of health providers.

Rep. Sanford Bishop is the congressman from my hometown so this article definitely hits home for me.  I've always wondered how he was going to be able to walk the tightrope of being in the CBC and being a "Blue Dog."  I will definitely be paying attention to his actions as far as healthcare is concerned because I know a lot of people back at home who are concerned about this issue.


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