Bart Stupak's decision to retire comes in wake of bruising health-care fight

Rep. Bart Stupak insists tea party activists outraged over his support of health care legislation didn't run him out of office, but his decision to retire gives conservatives a rallying point as they target Democrats in the midterm elections. (April 9)
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

MARQUETTE, MICH. -- The former state trooper ran for Congress in 1992 with a pledge to fix the nation's health-care system. "Health care is a right," reads a slogan, in blue typeface, on Bart Stupak's first campaign pamphlet.

So it is fitting that after the Michigan Democrat's last-minute deal barring federal funding for abortions enabled a historic health-care overhaul to become law, he would decide to leave Congress. Stupak's stand on health care has brought him more vitriol this year than perhaps any other politician, and after a career spent in a beat-up Oldsmobile hopscotching a district so vast that commutes are measured in hours, not miles, he said he is simply exhausted.

"I'm at the crossroads in my own life," Stupak, 58, said in an interview here. "All those things I said in 1992, I've done. It's time to come home. It's been a hell of a ride for me, but I'm glad to step offstage now."

Stupak's announcement Friday that he would not seek reelection rippled across Washington, with Democrats expressing anxiety that his politically conservative district had become a ripe opportunity for Republicans in their bid to regain a majority in the House.

Throughout the health-care debate, the pressure on Stupak from activists on the right and left was extraordinary. Conservatives said he sold out to the Obama administration by voting for the final bill last month even though it did not contain his amendment to ban federal funding of abortions. But when he negotiated President Obama's executive order outlining prohibitions against such funding, women's groups pledged to defeat him and enlisted a Democratic primary challenger.

Stupak's stance pinched a collective nerve. His staff catalogued hundreds of calls, most from out of state, some of them from liberals and others from conservatives, but all of them angry. He received death threats by phone and fax, at home and at the office. His wife, Laurie, once unplugged the family's phone for respite.

When Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) shouted "Baby killer!" while Stupak was on the House floor during the final health-care debate, it was especially painful. In 2000, Stupak's youngest son committed suicide using the congressman's pistol.

Elizabeth Nagelkirk, 56, an anti-abortion independent who owns a lakefront restaurant in Marquette, said she had supported Stupak until his late role in the health-care debate. "I was proud to say he was my representative," she said. "But he lost me. He was either bullied or bought, and his principles were compromised."

Now she's looking at Republican Dan Benishek, a doctor who is a favorite of the "tea party" movement. A group called the Tea Party Express made Stupak a top target in the November midterms, second only to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The group's national bus tour reached Stupak's Upper Peninsula district Thursday night and is staging a half-dozen rallies here over three days.

Constituents' emissary

Asked whether he succumbed to the pressure, Stupak said: "That's not my nature. That's not who I am. I have town hall meetings that have more people than the tea party does."

If he were to seek a 10th term this fall, Stupak said, the outcome would never be in doubt. "Every time I vote, someone gets mad at me," he said. "But when it comes to November, they always vote for me."

When Obama called Stupak earlier this week, pleading with him to run for reelection and offering the full support of the White House, Stupak said he told the president: "I can win this election. I'm not worried about that. Look at my numbers. I'm fine. I'm in great shape.

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