Congressman John Barrow of Savannah represents a district where more than one out of five people not on Medicare are uninsured.
Despite this sobering statistic, this past Saturday he was one of 39 Democrats voting against President Obama's landmark health care legislation, which narrowly passed the House of Representatives.
Regardless of what you think of the health care legislation or of his vote on it, Barrow is no fool. He can run the numbers as well as anyone, and he has as many lives as a cat.
He took the seat from a Republican in 2004, only to see the district gerrymandered mid-decade in precedent-shattering fashion by Eric Johnson and company, specifically in order to defeat him. He handily defended it in 2006 despite two visits from then-President George W. Bush on behalf of his opponent.
Barrow's cagey early support for Barack Obama in 2008 helped him solidify the local African American vote in his favor -- which no doubt came in handy as he simultaneously faced a primary challenge from a well-regarded African American politician, Regina Thomas.
Through it all, he's developed a reputation as a consummate survivor and a crafty pool shark of a politician -- knowing all the angles, using each shot to set up the next one.
But Barrow, usually so adept at navigating the often stormy political waters that surround being a white Democrat in the deep South, may have taken a vote too far this time.
Like many congressmen in conservative districts, Barrow paid close attention to the theatrics of the "Tea Party" movement over the summer. Despite the almost 100 percent certainty that most Tea Partiers -- or teabaggers, or whatever they call themselves -- will vote straight Republican in the next election, many so-called Blue Dog Democrats still march to their tune on the health care issue.
With his "no" vote, Barrow sent a signal that despite representing a district that gave Obama 55 percent of the vote, despite representing one of the most poverty-stricken districts in the U.S., despite probably needing every African American vote he can get in 2010 to keep his seat, he would still dance with the Tea Partiers rather than the 21 percent of his constituents desperately in need of real access to health care - however imperfectly and bureaucratically administered as it is likely to be.
The blowback has already begun. I'm copied on a local health care e-mail list, and while I won't share the names of who is on it, I will share with you a very typical sample comment:
"A no vote puts him at the mercy of his base. Or what's left of it."
Barrow cannot be naÏve as to the ramifications of his vote. While he studiously, and I believe wisely, avoided open town hall meetings this summer -- thus avoiding YouTube moments with rabid Tea Partiers foaming at the mouth while screaming nonsensical slogans like "Keep your government hands off our Medicare" -- Barrow did hold a number of invitation-only meetings with local African American leaders.
They told him in no uncertain terms that they and his most loyal constituents expected a "yes" vote on health care reform after all the support they'd given him in beating back Republican challenges -- including standing with him against a fellow African American in the person of Thomas.
Now, I strongly suspect all bets are off. In fact, I'm pretty much sure of it.
And while I wouldn't wager against Barrow - too many have and lost before for that to be a wise move - next year he will be in for the fight of his political life. Again.
In arts-related news, the Savannah Film Festival puts another edition in the books. The clear highlight was the final night's screening of Precious, including an appearance by its gracious director Lee Daniels. This harrowing inner city tale with an unlikely protagonist boasts a shoo-in Best Actress Oscar nominee (Gabby Sidibe, sadly not present at the screening as advertised) and possibly two Supporting Actress nominees in Mo'Nique and Mariah Carey - with the latter's thoroughly actorly portrayal of a social worker hopefully putting to rest any lingering doubts about her mental state or professionalism.
My other favorite film of the Festival was Jason Reitman's Up in the Air, the super-secret Director's Choice movie featuring what I believe to be George Clooney's best work onscreen (see his other Film Festival flick, The Men Who Stare At Goats, reviewed in this issue).
My other reporter's notes on the Festival:
• The 9:30 p.m. screenings seem to be one of those ideas that looks great on paper but has problems being executed in reality.
• I love, love the River Club as an after-party setting. But if I were a personal injury attorney, I'd love those large bouncing balls strewn all over the floor even more.
• And personal to Len and Danny: Love you dudes, but seriously -- lose the coats and ties for this one week out of the year. Film festivals are all about being cool and casual!
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