In a time when politicians and their vocal followers have camped themselves behind increasingly rigid battle lines, U.S. Rep. John Barrow seeks to blaze his own trail.
That independent streak gets Barrow, D-Ga., admiration and derision, depending on who is talking.
Barrow, who first was elected to represent Georgia’s 12th Congressional District in 2004, is in a dogfight with state Rep. Lee Anderson, R-Grovetown, to win a fifth term.
The race has garnered national attention because Republicans see it as a strong opportunity to gain a seat in the U.S. House after the GOP-controlled state Legislature redrew the district’s boundaries to cut out Democratic-leaning Savannah, which had been Barrow’s home base, and include more Republican-leaning rural areas. Barrow moved to Augusta in March to stay within the new district.
Barrow, 56, is the last white Democratic congressman in the Deep South. When asked about that distinction in an interview with the Statesboro Herald, he said he is the last of “my kind,” but he was not referring to race, party affiliation or geographic area.
“They keep rigging the districts, playing gerrymandering games,” Barrow said, referring to both Democrats and Republicans’ drawing of legislative and congressional districts to their advantage across the country. “That increases the demand for a guy like me, who is willing to reach across the aisle, like Roy Rowland and Elliott Levitas. I may not be as good as them, but I follow in their footsteps.”
Levitas represented Georgia’s 4th Congressional District in the Atlanta suburbs from 1975-1985. Rowland represented the 8th Congressional District in Dublin and surrounding areas from 1983-1995. Like Barrow, both were moderate Democrats.
Barrow also gets praise from a variety of sources. He was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, which both have a reputation for being Republican-leaning.
His record can be perplexing to the casual observer, no matter the affiliation. For example, Barrow voted against the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as “Obamacare,” but he also voted against its repeal. His explanation is that it’s not as black-and-white as his detractors make it sound.
Barrow listed his chief objections to the health care law as the requirement that individuals have health insurance and that employers offer it and the Independent Payment Advisory Board (an appointed panel that issues measures to reduce future health-care spending that go into effect unless Congress passes a law against them).
But he supports the more popular provisions, such as the ability for parents to include their children on their insurance plans through age 26, and ending insurance companies’ ability to discriminate against patients with “pre-existing conditions.”
The House Republican leadership “promised” bring to a vote legislation that would allow parts of the law to be repealed, “and I hold them to that promise,” Barrow said. “If we repeal what’s good, we will never get them back from this crowd.”
Barrow also disputed the notion that he supports the Affordable Care Act at the expense of Medicare. Rather, he said, Anderson supports a plan put forth by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, which Barrow says would “end Medicare as we know it.”
Barrow likened the current Medicare system to a pension. “It’s the last pension most folks have left,” he said, pointing to many companies ending pension plans and replacing them with retirement investment plans such as the 401(k).
One of the biggest points of contention in the race is Anderson’s refusal to participate in debates with Barrow. Barrow accepted invitations to forums organized by the Herald, WJBF-TV in Augusta and Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.
Anderson turned down all those invitations, saying he would “consider” participating only if Barrow says on TV who he supports for president and House Democratic leader. Barrow won’t oblige that condition, saying no candidate should set conditions for participating in a debate.
For the record, Barrow has told several news outlets, including the Herald, that he will support “the top of the ticket,” meaning President Barack Obama, in the general election. He also has voted for Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as House Democratic leader three times, but in 2011, he voted for fellow Georgia Democrat John Lewis.
“The purpose of a debate is for the candidates to put their ideas out there and for people to figure out for themselves where they stand,” Barrow said. “It’s not to say, ‘I ain’t gonna play.’ … You need to stand up and speak for yourself. If you can’t do that, how are you going to speak up for the district?”
Barrow lists the expansion of Plant Vogtle in Burke County and progress toward deepening Savannah Harbor as his major accomplishments in office. He also pointed to his role in increasing mileage reimbursement for veterans who drive long distances to VA clinics for medical care – for the first time in 30 years – his efforts to getting funding to establish engineering programs at Georgia Southern University, and his work in getting a primary-care VA clinic in Statesboro, which is scheduled to open early next year.
Barrow is the father of two children, James and Ruth.
Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.