Bart Stupak on Life After Congress and the Future of Health Care

Former congressman Bart Stupak, who cast the deciding vote for health-care reform opens up to Sandra McElwaine.

Nicholas Kamm, AFP / Getty Images

Sitting ramrod-straight behind his desk in his plush new office, sporting a crisp white shirt and a splashy yellow-and-black Green Bay Packers tie, former Democratic congressman Bart Stupak is relishing the good life.

After nine terms in the House of Representatives, the once obscure, pro-life, conservative legislator who became the flash point in last year’s historic health-care debate gave up his seat to become a gilded Washington operative—a partner in the Government and Legislative Affairs Group of Venable LLP.

There are no more all-nighters in Congress, no red-eye flights back to his remote Michigan district, no more vituperative calls, obscene letters, shouts of “baby killer,” or terrifying death threats.

Even before he negotiated a last-minute deal with President Obama to ban federal funding for abortion and provided the defining vote, he called his life “a living hell.”

“I was the face of health care. Whatever you thought about it, I was it,” he says calmly. ”I’m surprised I never got shot.” (One enraged constituent, Russell Hesch, recently pleaded guilty to threatening to kill Stupak, his wife, Laurie, and his son Ken, and to paint the Mackinac Bridge with their blood. His trial is scheduled for mid-December.)

Although he is occasionally hissed at and heckled in airports, the former state trooper’s life has become relatively serene. He now has the use of a private elevator to speed him to his office, and terraces and balconies for meetings alfresco, along with a mega-salary that allows him to rent a home in suburban Maryland and enjoy a leisurely weekend commute to his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“I’m relaxed, I feel great, and I’m enjoying rediscovering my life,” says Stupak, 59. “Before, I was the fox chasing the voter. Now I’m the observer, sitting back and watching.”

He is also guiding clients through the quagmire of the various regulatory agencies and, as a former member of the Subcommittte on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, speaking out about our too-relaxed attitude toward cyberspace security. His greatest fear? The shutdown of the electrical grid.

“This is one of the biggest threats to our country, one that no one understands,” he states. “We really have to have a better understanding that our next terrorist attack will be through computers, not airplanes. The numbers are staggering how many times an hour we get hit—hackers like China and other countries trying to get into our system.”

Their aim? To dismantle the government, take control of our communications, and wreck our financial institutions. “Crash the stock market and not be able to get it back up—see what happens,” he warns.

As he talks about his new job, he proudly displays mementoes and memorabilia from the tumultuous last years. On his walls are congratulatory notes from Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden and a picture of Obama signing the legislative order for health-care overhaul. It is inscribed, ”To Bart. Thanks for the great leadership.” The president’s black-and-silver Cross pen is in a box stashed in a drawer of Stupak’s desk.

In an interesting aside, he says the ultimate decision came down to a behind-the-scenes meeting with Obama and was “a question of who was going to blink to first, the president or I. I wasn’t scared. I knew we had the same goals, and we both got what we wanted.”

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After the final vote on March 21, 2010, he felt “relieved, reflective, proud, and exhausted.” But now, despite Stupak’s dedication and stewardship and all the Sturm und Drang, the law has been challenged and may be in jeopardy. Last Wednesday, because of conflicting cases in federal courts, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to rule on the validity of health care, and it is possible the justices could strike down all or part of the law.

Stupak remains sanguine about his hard-fought victory. “I’m not surprised,” he says, “because emotions were running so deep I realized early on that it would end up in the Supreme Court. There was no doubt about it. I hope the court will do the right thing, look at the totality of the law and realize that it is constitutional. I believe they will.”

The most vexing issue? Mandatory health-care payments. Stupak maintains that Congress has the right to require all Americans to pay into a process that serves the entire nation: “To have a viable health-care structure, everyone has to pay into the system.”

One of 10 children, a Catholic, and an Eagle Scout, he grew up with what he calls “solid Midwestern values” in the small town of Gladstone, Mich. A lanky, laconic six-footer and an avid sports buff, he played basketball, baseball, and football and earned a B.A. in criminal justice before acquiring a law degree from Thomas M. Colley Law School in Lansing, Mich. “I didn’t want to end up being a midnight watchman somewhere,” he says. He went on to become a state trooper until he blew out a knee chasing a thief and then decided to hang out his shingle and practice law.

He served in the Michigan state legislature, and when he ran for the U.S. Congress in 1992 it was with the promise to repair health care. “Health care is a right” was the slogan on his first campaign pamphlet. “It’s always been my focus and my passion,” he explains.

Eighteen years later, after the bruising battle and having accomplished his goal, Stupak decided to quit. He taught for a semester at the Kennedy School at Harvard last spring and then headed for the big bucks of Washington.

He is a lawyer, not a lobbyist, so he can still utilize his insider connections by hanging out with his buddies in the House gym. “I have so much access because I’m not a lobbyist. I can see 15 or 16 guys between 7 and 9 a.m. I don’t want to lose that contact, but if 20 percent or more of my work comes from lobbying I’ll have to give it up.” But he seems ambiguous about that decision.

He is still a major part of the congressional baseball team, coaching someone else to replace him on first base. During practice season he gets up every morning at 6, drives around in his old beat-up Explorer collecting six or seven members and their equipment, and heads to the field. “It’s a blast to be out there with the guys at 7 a.m.,” he says. “I still have a lot of interaction with both Democrats and Republicans. I get along well with everybody.”

He voices no second thoughts or concern over leaving the Hill. “As an Eagle Scout I was taught to leave a campsite better than when I found it. When I left Congress, it was a better place than when I came.”

As for his pivotal role in health care, he responds without hesitation: “I have no regrets. I’d do it all again tomorrow."

A possible return to politics? Stupak shrugs.

“There are two positions I’ve been asked to look at: governor of Michigan and my old seat. I promised myself I’m going to give myself four years to see where I am. If at the end of that time I want to get back in the game—I’ll get back in.”