WASHINGTON — For Reps. Sanford Bishop and David Scott, it hasn't been easy lately being Congress' only black "Blue Dogs."
With the emotional debate raging over revamping the nation's health care system, Scott and Bishop — both Georgia lawmakers and members of the moderate Blue Dog Democrats as well as the liberal Congressional Black Caucus — have gotten earfuls from constituents in their politically mixed, racially diverse, urban-rural districts.
The more conservative, mostly white, residents of their districts complain about the price of President Barack Obama's health care proposals — an estimated $900 billion over 10 years — while the more liberal, mostly black, residents argue that health care can't be fixed without a strong "public option" alternative to private health insurance.
"I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't," Bishop said. "Half my district wants it, half doesn't."
While both men say they're comfortable balancing the fiscal conservatism and strong support for the military that the Blue Dog Coalition advocates with the black caucus's socially progressive platform — which includes pushing for a strong public health option — the health care debate has made it tough for them to walk the moderate fine line that's defined much of their tenure in the House of Representatives.
Scott learned that last month, when he found a swastika spray-painted on a sign outside his Smyrna district office after a contentious town hall meeting on health care.
One letter sent to his office addressed him as "Nigga David Scott."
"The folks are not going to stand for socialized medicine even though negro's (sic) refuse to stand on their own two feet," read another letter, sent from a Michigan address.
Merle Black, a political science professor at Atlanta's Emory University and co-author of "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics," said a final vote on health care would be a defining moment for Bishop if he backed a plan with Obama's criteria in it.
"He may lose some of his white supporters," Black said. "He'll basically be seen as an Obama liberal in that district. This could be the most crucial vote he casts."
Bishop represents Georgia's 2nd Congressional District, which is nestled along the state's southwestern border with Alabama. The area is a patchwork of small rural towns, peanut farms and Fort Benning, a sprawling military installation near Columbus that's seen large numbers of its troops deployed in heavy rotations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Roughly 50 percent of the district's active registered voters are white and 47 percent are African-American. Though some counties in the district voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, Bishop handily defeated his Republican challenger with roughly 69 percent of the vote, according to September figures from the Georgia Secretary of State's Office.
In the 2nd District, the priorities are "God, country, hard work and guns, and not necessarily in that order, and that's for the black and white community," said Bishop, who was one of only four Congressional Black Caucus members to vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq war.
Bishop deftly navigates his district's political currents because "he can deal with the farmers like he can the soldiers," according to retired Maj. Gen. Jerry White, a former commander of the U.S. Army Infantry Center and Fort Benning.
"He has a sense about him that people truly believe he understands their needs,"said White, who worked with Bishop to help build a multimillion-dollar, state-of-the-art National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus.
Still, as Bishop stood facing a crowd of 530 constituents last month at that museum, he was forced to remind the gathering of his moderate bona fides.
"My vote doesn't belong to Nancy Pelosi and it doesn't belong to Barack Obama," Bishop, a nine-term congressman who co-chaired the president's Georgia campaign efforts, said in response to intense questioning. "It belongs to the people in the 2nd District of Georgia."
Bishop remains open to the idea of a public option and encourages competition among insurance companies. He's willing to consider alternatives, however, in order to achieve improvement, such as member-owned, nonprofit health cooperatives that negotiate directly with a network of health providers.
Scott says he solidly supports a Democratic-sponsored health care plan with a robust public option, though he feels that option is in jeopardy because opponents have co-opted the word "public" to mean socialized medicine in the minds of some voters.
"I'm concerned we're going to have to get something else that will do the same things that doesn't have the word 'public' in it," he said. "Once they put the name 'public' out there, all the haters came out."
Still, Scott — a four-term congressman whose 13th Congressional District includes one of the world's busiest airports, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, smaller rural towns and Fort Gillem, a military installation facing closure — says his base knows where he stands.
"The only problem I've had are real right-wing people, 'tea party' (tax protest) people, who aren't going to vote for me anyway," he said.
However, though Scott won re-election last year with 69 percent of the vote, his challenge is most acute in places such as Smyrna, a city dominated by Republicans and conservative Democrats in a traditionally Republican-leaning county with a growing minority population.
Scott, whose district is 32 percent white active registered voters and 59 percent black, said he was a Blue Dog but was anchored in the Congressional Black Caucus.
"I know where my base is, but I can't just stay there. I have to reach out," he said. "It's a challenge. I'm not 100 percent with the Blue Dogs. I'm pretty solid with the CBC. But I do think it's important for African-American members of Congress to have relations with all members of Congress."
In 2004, Scott voted with Democrats 79 percent of the time and Bishop did 74 percent of the time, according to a Congressional Quarterly analysis. So far this year, both have voted along the party line 98 percent of the time, the analysis found.
"I don't think you can pigeonhole him into a particular category on votes," said Fred Bryant, the head of Fort Gillem's redevelopment efforts. "He's an African-American and John Lewis is African-American. Lewis is a product of the civil rights movement. Scott respects that movement but he doesn't get pushed into voting a certain way because of that."
"He's strong on things that might be traditionally attributed to Republicans: homeland security and the military."
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