Back home, defending their healthcare votes

April 12, 2010

Reporting from Charlottesville, Va., Murrieta, Calif., and New York — The congressional battle over healthcare may have ended, but not the political fight.

With Congress in recess, members trooped home over the last two weeks to discuss what, for many, could be the most consequential vote of their careers. They explained, defended and sometimes distorted the content of the mammoth bill, now federal law, and what it means for their eager, anxious and often just plain confused constituents.

Virginia Democrat Tom Perriello’s family was targeted by vandals after he voted yes, but outraged supporters in his Republican-leaning district rallied behind him. Palm Springs Republican Mary Bono Mack stuck by her staunch opposition, even as contributions poured in for her Democratic rival. New York Democrat Michael Arcuri managed to antagonize both sides — backing the bill, then opposing final passage — and now worries about releasing his public schedule.

One thing these lawmakers share is a conviction they were right, whatever happens politically.

“There is no greater net positive than believing in what you did,” Bono Mack said.

“I didn’t go to Washington to stay in Washington,” Perriello said. “I went to Washington to help make people’s lives better. We’ve done something that folks have tried for a century and failed to do.”

Now the sales job begins.

Tom Perriello

The doughnut holes were next to the coffee at the senior center, a gastronomic aid to pitch the healthcare bill in southern Virginia, where Tom Perriello is in serious trouble.

They were supposed to represent the Medicare “doughnut hole,” a coverage gap that the law closes to help seniors pay for prescription drugs. Perriello brought nine dozen to his Charlottesville town hall last week, but the symbolism was lost on Anne Prang, 88, who thanked the congressman afterward “for those funny little cakes.”

Nothing about the healthcare overhaul has been easy. For Perriello, a freshman who won by 727 votes, it has brought mostly political heartburn.

Sarah Palin put him on her Facebook hit list; seven GOP challengers are lined up hoping to knock him off. Phones in his five offices were jammed for months. His brother’s house was vandalized with a severed gas line after critics posted the address, thinking it was the congressman’s.

To look at him — 35, compact, neatly coiffed — Perriello does not appear besieged. A Yale-educated lawyer and conflict resolution expert, he was part of a showdown that forced Liberian dictator Charles Taylor from power without a shot fired. Tense situations don’t rattle him, like the 21 town halls last August that were supposed to be a “listening tour.” People mostly yelled at him.

This audience is friendly. About 75 seniors are in the room and an additional 5,000 listen by phone. Last summer’s vitriol has given way to questions about how the law works. But the anger hasn’t gone away so much as gone underground. A few nights before, local “tea party” activists gathered in a member’s garage and suggested Perriello deserved a second term — “in jail.”

The venom has mobilized supporters. “I felt awful,” said Joan Miller, 73, a retired nurse who called Perriello’s office to apologize for the conduct of some people. “Now I’m going to fight harder.”

The road to November is steep in this richly historic district, where Lee surrendered to Grant. Perriello eked out his victory thanks to a strong turnout by African American and first-time voters attracted by Barack Obama, who won’t be on the ballot this time.

His voting record — yes on healthcare, economic stimulus and a measure to fight global warming — seems like a political death wish in these conservative parts. Perriello’s already lost people like Charlottesville Republican Stacy Erickson, 45, stocking up on supplies for her home-repair business at Wal-Mart. “I voted for him and I regret it,” she said.

Voter confusion is as big a challenge as voter anger. Carol Verberg, 61, a retired medical records clerk, likes Obama so much she has a 12-inch commemorative plate in her living room. But when it comes to healthcare, she isn’t sure. “I just don’t know that much about it,” she said. “I have to see how it affects me. I don’t care about anybody else. I want my same insurance, but I want the premiums to go down.”

Perriello’s plan is to go out and explain the law with the same grass-roots outreach that helped him pull off one of the biggest upsets of 2008. “Eventually,” he believes, “the opposition’s sound bites will ring hollow.”

Michael Arcuri

Flip-flopper, opportunist, traitor, panderer, coward — the epithets are flying in upstate New York over Mike Arcuri’s healthcare vote.

The two-term Democratic congressman tried to explain his about-face on Facebook: why he liked the government-run plan in the House bill he supported and not the effect on small business, the middle class and seniors in the Senate bill he opposed. But it’s not clear it helped.

“I don’t really understand this vote at all,” Timothy Wing wrote in response. “I’m sure the Repub[licans] will be out in force supporting you. Hahaha. Yeah right. And now the Dem[ocrat]s won’t support you either. Very smart!”

“We hope no one will confuse this decision with ‘courage,’ ” said another post. “It’s nothing of the sort.”

Arcuri, 51, declined to be interviewed, and aides refused to release his public schedule.

But there is no ducking the healthcare issue.

Arcuri has said repeatedly that he ignored considerable pressure and took a principled stand to buck the party. “Obviously, if it were political for me, I would have voted ‘yes,’ ” Arcuri told the Utica paper. “Telling the president ‘no’ three times and a host of other Democratic leadership people in Washington is not an easy thing. But look, I represent my district, and they don’t support this bill. And that’s what I told the president.”

The district spans 11 sparsely populated counties of rolling hills and dairy farms. It includes the birthplaces of baseball (Cooperstown) and women’s rights (Seneca Falls). Today, it is burdened by a depressed economy that has steadily lost manufacturing jobs along with young residents, who fled to find work. Politically, Republicans have long dominated, but 20% of voters aren’t affiliated with either party.

Since coming to Washington in 2006, Arcuri, a popular former Oneida County district attorney, has been a leader in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition, voting so consistently down the middle that the National Journal, the capital’s policy bible, last year named him the most centrist member of the House.

There’s no evidence that he won new friends going against his party this time. A GOP spokesman immediately wrote off Arcuri’s rejection of the final healthcare bill as a craven political maneuver. At the same time, the head of a local business group that backed his Republican opponents in previous elections said members were pleased — but they probably still won’t endorse his reelection.

Arcuri’s staunchest support and contributions have come from unions, progressive groups and the national Democratic Party, but that may change. Since his vote, there have been rumblings among Democrats about how energetically to support — or even punish — Arcuri this fall.

“I believe he’ll rue the day he alienated his most passionate workers,” said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party, which takes credit for Arcuri’s narrow 2008 victory. In New York, candidates may appear on the ballot on separate party lines. The WFP listed Arcuri under its line and claimed it delivered 9,454 voters in a race he won by just under 10,000 ballots. But since the healthcare vote, the party has vowed to yank Arcuri’s name and either leave it blank or run another candidate.

“Michael will pay a price because some labor folks will not forget the flip-flopping,” said Pat Costello, president of a local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. “I’m telling organized labor not to panic, it’s just one vote. But the real concern is not so much the one vote but his core values. Have they changed?”

Mary Bono Mack

For years, Republican Rep. Mary Bono Mack has worn a bull’s-eye on her back, a reflection of the increasingly Democratic tilt of her sprawling Southern California district.

Her periodic willingness to break with the GOP, especially on social issues, established a moderate image that helped Bono Mack fend off a series of challengers, most recently in 2008 when Obama carried the district — a mix of mountains, desert and cookie-cutter subdivisions — with 52% support.

But when it comes to healthcare, Bono Mack is an unstinting critic of the new federal law, adamant it will saddle Americans with more taxes, higher costs and worse treatment. “I fear that bureaucrats are going to be in charge,” she told a nervous audience at a senior center in Murrieta.

Bono Mack endorses Republican calls to “repeal and replace” the bill, though she is vague on details. She speaks of greater competition among insurers, funding community clinics and cracking down on frivolous lawsuits. However, there are contradictions in her stance; Bono Mack likes that patients with preexisting conditions will be assured care, but not the mechanism — a mandate requiring everyone to buy insurance — that spreads the risk and makes it possible.

As she visited last week with small groups of constituents, sticking to friendly Republican turf, she ignored some misconceptions. When a woman expressed concern about “death panels” rationing treatment for the infirm, Bono Mack did nothing to debunk the myth. “I think that reinforced my point very well,” she said. “Everyone’s threatened.”

Political calculation might argue for a more measured response. Seeking a seventh term, Bono Mack, 48, faces potentially her strongest opponent ever, Palm Springs Mayor Steve Pougnet, at a time Democrats have greatly narrowed the Republican’s once-bulging registration advantage.

But Bono Mack views the healthcare issue through a personal prism. Her late father was a physician who spent 20 years at County-USC Medical Center, often griping about the hurdles he saw government placing between himself and his patients. Some of his unhappiest days, Bono Mack said, were spent testifying in malpractice suits; that convinced her tort reform would go a long way toward fixing the healthcare system. “There are other answers out there without having to reengineer one-sixth of the economy,” she said.

Democrats have already targeted Bono Mack with radio spots, and Pougnet, who said fundraising soared after the healthcare vote, is eager to make her opposition an issue. The bill is not perfect, he said, but it means “peace of mind” for tens of thousands of people in the district and will go a long way toward covering most of the 120,000 or so without insurance. (Asked how many of her constituents lack coverage, Bono Mack said, “I don’t know off the top of my head.”)

Intensity matters in politics, however, and passions against the bill seemed to be running much stronger than support. When Bono Mack mentioned the legislation to the group of Murrieta seniors, the response was visceral: shouts of “Betrayal!” and “Two thumbs down!”

Democrat Max Heilbron, who backs the bill, asked rhetorically what difference it makes if government rather than insurance bureaucrats oversee the healthcare system. But he later approached Bono Mack and apologized if he had seemed impertinent. He might even vote for her in November.

“Every candidate has at least one issue I don’t like,” said Heilbron, 85. “You have to look at the broad base.”
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