Bart Stupak, the pivot point of the health-care reform bill, has decided to throw in the towel. When the nine-term pro-life congressman announced his decision yesterday, his political foes began to crow. They had targeted the Michigan Democrat ever since he had reversed his position on the contentious legislation and finally voted yes for the massive overhaul. When he announced his departure because he was “burned out” only two weeks after the rancorous debate, they quickly claimed victory and started to gloat.
The Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, had already spent $150,000 on negative TV ads in his district. The Tea Party Express went on a rampage in his home district, the remote Upper Peninsula. And the Family Research Council concluded that Stupak’s reputation was forever tarnished because of his health-care reform vote, and stated they were shelling out more than $500,000 on radio ads in an effort to force him into retirement. The Michigan GOP gleefully announced he was the first casualty of the health-care war. There were also innumerable death threats, violent protests, and obscene letters, emails, and phone calls. For many months leading up to the acrimonious vote, the former policeman and state trooper called his life ”a living hell.”
“If he had decided to run, he would have won.”
“Unfortunately, some of those calls were vulgar, cruel, profane, and threatening. We were saddened and disappointed by the cruelty and hypocrisy of some of the callers,” said his wife Laurie.
Yet despite all the vituperation, Stupak insists he is leaving of his own volition, in order to spend more time with family and friends and lead a different kind of life. ”The Tea Party did not run me out,” he told he AP. "If you know me and my personality, I would welcome the challenge.”
Dorothy Johnson, chairwoman of the group First District Democrats of Michigan, agrees.
"Bart is not afraid of a fight, nobody scares him off or could get him to quit,” she says. "From the very beginning, health care was his first priority. I think it's been mission accomplished—he’s tired, it’s time to try something else.”
“Bart is not dead meat,” says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, “although he’s taken a hell of a beating these last six or seven weeks. If he had decided to run, he would have won.” Ballenger notes that the Republicans have no money to take him out and a pro-choice Democrat would have little chance in his socially conservative blue-collar district. “Pelosi, Reid, and Obama all begged to him to stay. They owe him big time and would have pumped funds into the race.“
Stupak was a relatively obscure conservative legislator until he stepped into the national spotlight leading a cadre of right-to-life Democrats to support health-care legislation after President Obama agreed to sign an executive order ensuring no federal funds would be used for abortion.
He was pilloried by both sides of the aisle: the left for originally blocking the bill and the right for his “yes “ vote, which they view as a betrayal of their principles. Being Stupaked—stabbed in the back—is now part of the conservative lexicon.
In announcing his decision, he admitted he had considered retiring several times. At one point, there had even been chatter about his running for governor, but he always thought there was one more job to be done. Now, he says, his "main legislative goal [health care] was accomplished.”
A close friend says he suffered over this conclusion, talking it over with his wife Laurie and son Ken for the better part of last week before deciding he was ready to go. "It’s time for him to make money,” she says. “He’ll back and forth between Washington and Michigan and probably become a lobbyist or something like that.”
For many of his constituents, his timing looks bad, as if he’d been knocked down and kicked to the curb by his opponents.
Bill Ballenger agrees that the emotional and physiological wear and tear have been tough and a major factor in this whole scenario. “He could have played Hamlet and agonized forever in making his decision,” says Ballenger, "but in reality he did his party a big favor. What nobody gets and what’s key is he did the right thing. He got out of the way and gave the Democrats plenty of time to pick a viable candidate before the May 11 filing deadline.”
It’s odd, he muses, how a “low-profile, low-key guy ended up as the poster child for all the blowback against Obama health care.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. She writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.