Tuesday 28 December 2010

A Unique One

Andrew Dodson writes:

When U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak began cleaning out his Washington, D.C., office earlier this month, he came across a flier that he published during his first run for Congress in the early 1990s. It read, “Health care is a right, not a privilege.” “I coined that phrase almost 20 years ago,” said Stupak, D-Menominee. “I’ve always believed that all Americans have the right to health care.” As he prepares to leave office, Stupak says the passage of universal health care for all Americans — a controversial issue that thrust the Congressman into the national spotlight — is the highlight of his political career.

As a career-long supporter of universal health care, Stupak naturally wanted to support President Barack Obama’s 2009 health care reform bill. But as a pro-life Democrat, he feared the bill would allow for federal funds to be used to pay for abortions. So he, along with Republican Congressman Joseph R. Pitts submitted an amendment that national media coined the “Stupak Amendment.” The amendment prohibited such payments. The amendment was adopted by the House, but not in the Senate’s version of the legislation. Stupak said he would not vote for the final version of the bill if his amendment was not included.

But in March, Stupak struck a deal with Obama that had the President signing an executive order that barred federal funding for abortions. The deal cleared the way for the passage of the health care bill and ignited a firestorm of criticism against Stupak. It’s a decision Stupak says he’ll never regret. “It was worth it,” said Stupak. “It means that people finally have the opportunity to qualify for affordable health care.” Stupak went on to say the executive order has been upheld three times in different litigation. In April, Stupak announced he would not seek re-election in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. He will be replaced by Republican Dan Benishek, of Crystal Falls, who defeated several challengers, including Democrat Gary McDowell, in November.

After 34 years of public service — which also includes work as a Michigan State Police trooper and state representative — Stupak said he plans to step away from government work for now, but he hasn’t ruled out returning to politics. “I’ve been married for 36 years and spent 34 years in public service,” said Stupak, 58. “I need to step away for awhile.” Stupak is married to Laurie Stupak. His son Ken Stupak is an attorney in California. Stupak likely will be heading to Massachusetts for a teaching fellowship at Harvard University beginning after the new year. He will work with graduate students in the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, pending approval from the university, according to Jake Ackman, a Harvard spokesman. “The opportunity at Harvard is a chance for me to do something different, it’s something I’m looking forward to,” Stupak said.

Stupak’s political allies say he will best be remembered for his hybrid politics, which include pro-life and pro-gun beliefs that won over Republicans and financial and economic philosophies that brought fellow Democrats to his side. “Bart is a unique one,” said Thomas Baldini, of Marquette, who has served as Stupak’s district director for the past eight years. “He knows what he believes in and he understands his district. He’s not a wide-eyed liberal, or a wide-eyed conservative, despite what some people would say because he voted a certain way on an issue.” Stupak’s decisions regarding the health care reform bill turned out to be polarizing as former supporters turned their backs on the Congressman and spoke out publicly against him.

More seriously, Stupak dealt with threats from constituents and out-of-district residents. Russell Hesch, 73, of West Branch, is charged with threatening Stupak and his family because of his health care vote. He’s accused of writing a letter that threatened to paint the Mackinac Bridge with Stupak’s blood. “You always take all threats seriously,” said Stupak. In an interview with The Times earlier this year, Stupak said his phone rang off the hook with complaints and threats. Now leaving office, he said his “Stupak Amendment” could still be installed into the reform bill. “It could happen, especially with a Republican-controlled House,” said Stupak. “I’d still like to see it in statute, because it’s harder for the President to overrule it.”

Another major project that Stupak said he wanted to accomplish by year’s end is finalizing the purchase of Standish Maximum Security Prison by the Federal Bureau of Prisons. In August, Stupak said federal officials were “very serious” about purchasing the prison, which closed in October 2009, but hung in limbo until last December, when federal officials considered sending Guantanamo Bay detainees to the Arenac County prison. The Obama administration decided to house those detainees in Illinois instead — a success for local opposition groups, such as the Michigan Coalition to Stop Gitmo North, but a blow to city officials and residents that didn’t want to see the prison vacant. Stupak said his successor will have to take up the fight to see the prison reopened. “I brought it as far as I could under my watch,” said Stupak. “It’s up to Benishek to make sure that money is there.” Though excited for the next chapter in his life, Stupak admits leaving government service is difficult for him. He remembers his father, Frank Stupak, being active in local politics, and helping him knock on doors during election seasons.

“That was me, that’s who I am,” said Stupak. “I loved going door-to-door to get out the Democratic vote. I remember times where my high school buddies and I would go out and take a weekend to just go and do it, pedaling for my dad.” He said he will miss his daily interaction with other members of Congress, also. “99.9 percent of the people in there are great people,” said Stupak. “I’m going to really miss the members, the daily interaction. I don’t agree with 100 percent of the people I worked with, but I know their hearts are in the right place — they all want the best for this country. We may disagree, but that keeps things interesting.”

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