In Upstate New York, Democrats feel betrayed by Rep. Arcuri

Many Democrats in Cortland, N.Y. were stunned when their Congressman voted against Obama's health-care bill.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 22, 2010

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Woodman's Pub has been the site of many celebrations over the years. On a recent evening, though, four Democrats gathered at the neon-lit bar to take stock of their problems.

Their county committee is splintered and has neither a Web site nor a headquarters. Their enthusiasm is outmatched by that of their Republican counterparts, who were jolted awake by the "tea party" movement. A liberal third party that had been an ally is now a threat.

And Rep. Michael Arcuri, the first Democrat to represent this area in the House since 1983, has become one of Congress's most vulnerable Democrats, unpopular not only with conservatives but with many of the activists who helped him get elected.

"We have a congressman we fought long and hard for, and you know, he didn't come through for us," said Sean Mack, a real estate agent, who sipped a Coke at the bar.

This year, he said, he will vote for Arcuri, but "my plan is not to, like, pound the pavement and go overboard and be a real zealot about it."

In a sun-filled kitchen a couple of blocks away, another group of Democrats tried to muster enthusiasm over slices of sausage-and-pepper pizza. Jo Schaffer, the Democratic committee's secretary, said she is waiting for Arcuri to visit them and personally explain his vote against the health-care bill.

"What has happened is a big disappointment. It's a betrayal -- I can't think of any other word," she said. "We are receptive to what he has to say about it. We want to hear his rationale, and I have no doubt we will come together behind him in the end."

Arcuri is part of a class of Democrats that some Republicans derisively refer to as the "wave babies," swept into office in 2006 at the peak of anger over President George W. Bush and the Iraq war. Republicans believe they can take back some of those seats this fall -- especially in GOP-leaning districts such as Arcuri's, which covers a swath of rural Upstate New York as well as several college towns, including Cortland.

Like Democrats elected recently in similar districts, Arcuri has tried to please both his base and his crossover supporters. Shortly after taking office, he joined the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition. He voted in favor of the stimulus but against a "cap and trade" bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Then last month, he reversed course on the health-care bill, voting against it along with 33 of his Democratic colleagues after supporting it for months.

"We certainly appreciate the hard work that activists do, but I represent a largely moderate district and voted the way the district and I thought was best," Arcuri said in an e-mail. On his Web site, he said he was concerned that insurance premiums would rise for families, seniors and small businesses.

The vote deflated his most ardent backers -- "like a razor to a balloon," said Henry Steck, a Democratic activist and professor at the State University of New York at Cortland. "People were willing to roll with the punch [on cap and trade], but health-care reform is the signature issue of our time, of the Obama administration, et cetera. It's taken a lot of the wind out of the sails of his base."

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