BOYNE CITY, Mich. — Three years of political war–a word that unfortunately seems to apply–will culminate tomorrow when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s health care law. The political toll of this conflict on the American body politic has been high.
No one symbolizes this carnage more than Bart Stupak.
Stupak is the former representative of the first Congressional District in Michigan. In 2010, after passage of the Obama legislation, he decided that he’d had enough.
The beginning of the end came when Stupak, a Democrat, angered some liberals by joining with a handful of his party colleagues to initially withhold support for Obama’s health care plan because of concerns about abortion funding. In his words at the time, “We are not voting for health care if we do not resolve this language on public funding for abortion–no public funding for abortion.”
And it ended when he angered some conservatives because he and his allies eventually voted yes after a compromise–known as the Stupak Amendment–was brokered. Immediately he was harassed and had his life threatened. He was called “baby killer” by a Republican on the floor of the House of Representatives. A month later he announced he would not run for re-election.
I wanted to know what people thought of him these days, whether emotions were still raw. I found some former constituents miss him.
Michigan’s First Congressional District is a behemoth.
It covers the state’s entire Upper Pensinsula–Michiganders call it The UP–and a northern swath of the Lower Peninsula, totalling almost 45% of the state’s geography. All told, it’s the second-largest congressional district east of the Mississippi River and equivalent in land mass to the state of West Virginia.
A few weeks ago, I drove east out of Green Bay, Wis., across The UP. On two-lane U.S. Highway 2 I hugged the northern rim of Lake Michigan, then turned south across the Mackinac Bridge, a five-mile span that connects The UP and Lower Peninsula (no one calls it the LP, fyi) and separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
I spent the evening in Petoskey, a tourist favorite, and ended my trek in the small town of Boyne City, which is best known for a local “mountain” that is considerably smaller than Mount Si but counts as the best skiing in the region. In the summer, folks swim in Lake Charlevoix. When I was a child, my family vacationed in the area each summer.
I took this journey on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, and the next day I attended a parade and public event honoring military members in Veteran’s Park in Boyne City. A monument in the center of the park lists men who were killed or injured in U.S. wars. Darryl Gillespie drew my attention to six Gillespies on the monument, and then took a moment to tell me he wished Stupak was still in Congress: “Bart Stupak was a good man. I voted for him.”
Next I met W. D. Schneider. He is the sheriff of Charlevoix County, which includes the towns of Boyne City, Charlevoix, and the villages of East Jordan, Boyne Falls, and Walloon–an area where Ernest Hemingway spent his formative years.
Schneider slowly nodded when I asked him about Stupak. He said, “Stupak took a beating for following his conscience. He followed his conscience and did the right thing as he saw it. I respect this. But some others weren’t happy with him.”
Stupak represented the District as a conservative Democrat from 1992 through 2011. He described himself, an anti-abortion Democrat, as “a rare breed.” From 1996 forward, he carried at least 58% of the vote each November. Didn’t matter whether it was a good year for Democrats or a bad one, he won handily in rural Michigan.
And he always had one signature issue: health care for more Americans. Universal health care was his thing.
When Obama was elected and made health care his priority, Stupak’s political ship seemed to have come in.
Unfortunately for him, he went down with it.
Diehard liberals despised him for holding up the process on what they saw as mistaken or wrongheaded convictions. Across the partisan aisle, when Stupak voted for the health care bill and brought with him his allies, he was viewed as being the deciding factor. After his vote, conservative outlet The American Spectator annointed Dan Benishek, Stupak’s opponent for 2010, as “The Most Popular Republican in America.”
Stupak announced his decision to retire in April 2010, saying, “Last month, we finally accomplished what I set out to do 18 years ago–we passed comprehensive national health care reform.” He said it was time to move on. He didn’t mention the threats to his life, but in an interview a year later he said, “It’s not unusual that when I go through an airport–and I go back and forth every week–that I will get at least one person cussing me out.”
In November 2010, Benishek beat former state Rep. Gary McDowell by a comfortable 36,000 votes. Benishek won every county in the Lower Peninsula. However, a poll released Monday shows that McDowell, a conservative, anti-abortion Democrat like Stupak, and Benishek are neck and neck as they head toward a 2012 rematch.
Another Stupak doesn’t look bad these days to some.
Ralph, a 74-year-old Boyne Falls resident who wouldn’t give his last name, said, “Stupak worked for our state. He worked for our people. He cared about people. Benishek is not a Stupak man. I’m not a Democrat or Republican. I know Stupak’s life was threatened. His family was.
“Everytime I get mail from Benishek, I read it and then I burn it.”
The political carnage remains, and continues.