Jesse Jackson: 'You can't vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man'

The Rev. Jesse Jackson on Wednesday night criticized Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) for voting against the Democrats’ signature healthcare bill.

“We even have blacks voting against the healthcare bill from Alabama,” Jackson said at a reception Wednesday night. “You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man.”

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The remark stirred a murmur at the reception, held by the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Foundation as part of a series of events revolving around the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s run for president. Several CBC members were in attendance, including Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who’d introduced Jackson. 

Davis, who is running for governor, is the only black member of Congress from Alabama.

He is also the only member of the CBC to have voted against the healthcare bill earlier this month.

Davis referred to Jackson’s 1988 run for president in a statement, issued through his office, that said he would not engage Jackson on his criticism.

“One of the reasons that I like and admire Rev. Jesse Jackson is that 21 years ago he inspired the idea that a black politician would not be judged simply as a black leader,” Davis’s statement said. “The best way to honor Rev. Jackson’s legacy is to decline to engage in an argument with him that begins and ends with race.”

Jackson said later that he "didn't call anybody by name and I won't."

He added that he wasn't saying that black lawmakers must vote a certain way. Instead, they should vote the interests of the people in their districts, and he said the healthcare bill would help Alabama because it's one of the poorest states in the country.

"The poorest people need healthcare protection," Jackson said. "They have the highest infant mortality and the lowest life expectancy. They're dying from lack of access."

Other members of the CBC found no fault in Jackson's words. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) was in the audience. He called Jackson's criticism of Davis "accurate," but said he did not hear Jackson say "You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man."

"If it is an issue that disproportionately impacts black folks, race has to be considered," Cleaver said. Jackson, he added, "is expected by his constituency to call balls and strikes."

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called the remarks "vintage Jesse Jackson," but said Davis's vote against healthcare was consistent with a voting record more conservative than many CBC members.

"Artur Davis has a more conservative constituency," Waters said. "Since he's running for governor of Alabama, he reflects an even more conservative constituency."

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas) said each man was doing what he considered the right thing.

"People have a right to vote their constituency, and people have a right to speak their conscience," Jackson-Lee said. "Both happened."

Davis’s Democratic primary opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, highlighted Davis’s status as the lone African-American vote against the bill.

“He was the only Black Caucus member to vote against it. I don’t get it,” Sparks said last week, according to The Associated Press. Sparks is white.

Davis said he voted against the healthcare bill because "House leadership's approach is not the best we can do." He said he preferred a version passed by the Senate Finance Committee because it reduces subsidization of the healthcare industry, taxes high-value health plans instead of wealthy people, and is more effective in getting employers to help with health coverage.

Davis has countered that Sparks’s position on healthcare has changed over time, saying he’s being “deliberately dishonest.”

The primary will be June 1. All of the GOP candidates for governor have been critical of the healthcare legislation, according to the AP.

This story was updated at 9:55 p.m.