Rev. Jesse Jackson injects race into healthcare debate with Davis comments

The Rev. Jesse Jackson’s public rebuke of Rep. Artur Davis has injected race into a healthcare debate marked by disputes on immigration, abortion and euthanasia.

As the rhetoric intensifies on overhauling the nation’s healthcare system, Davis (D-Ala.) suggests he is accustomed to taking criticism from leaders in the African-American community.

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Davis, who turned 42 last month, has always been somewhat of an outsider in the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). And his vote against the House healthcare reform bill earlier this month did not win him any additional friends in the caucus.

He came to Congress soon after winning a primary against a CBC-backed member, Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), whose surrogates had questioned whether the Harvard-educated former prosecutor was “black enough.”

The CBC’s political action committee gave $10,000 to Hilliard to fight off Davis. Then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) gave even more. But when Davis faced his own primary in 2004, no such help was forthcoming.

“I’m sure I asked,” he said with a laugh on Thursday.

One CBC staffer quipped that Davis  is part of the 42-member caucus “by default.” In an interview, Davis noted he bucked the party on legislation on terrorist surveillance and hate crimes, adding, “I was the only [CBC] member who didn’t sign the letter demanding that [now-Sen. Roland] Burris get seated. I didn’t think that was a racial issue.”

Davis has amassed a more conservative voting record than most Democrats in the lower chamber. He is one of only 23 House Democrats who opposed healthcare reform and climate change.

In announcing his opposition, Davis went so far as to say the health bill risks creating a “disaster.”

The Alabama Democrat served as one of Rahm Emanuel’s deputies at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) during the 2006 cycle, when many CBC members clashed with the now White House chief of staff.

Now that he’s running to become the first black governor of Alabama, he’s drifted further to the right. This year, he voted “present” on the CBC’s budget plan.

Last year, President Barack Obama won Davis’s district with 74 percent of the vote, while Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) easily won the state of Alabama with 60 percent.

It didn’t surprise many of his CBC colleagues when Davis bucked the caucus and party leadership to be the only CBC member to vote against the Democrats’ healthcare plan.

Apparently, it did surprise Jackson, who came to the Capitol Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of his first presidential run. At a CBC Foundation reception on Wednesday night, Jackson denounced Davis’s vote, saying, “We even have blacks voting against the healthcare bill from Alabama. You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man.”

Jackson’s comments signified the first time race has been publicly used to criticize a member on healthcare reform. Other issues, including euthanasia, abortion and immigration, have dominated the debate for the last several months.

Jackson said later that he “didn’t call anyone by name.” But it is clear to whom Jackson was referring.

Jackson also said he wasn’t saying black members should vote alike, but that they should represent their districts. He said Alabama has some of the highest poverty in the nation, and desperately needs healthcare services.

“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.”

Davis’s district is 62 percent black and 25 percent live in poverty. He beat Hilliard after the black population dropped from 70 percent. Hilliard had bested Davis in 2000. The district includes the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where now-Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other civil rights activists were beaten by law enforcement during a peaceful protest.

Davis is now trying to woo a whiter, richer and more conservative constituency statewide. As a whole, the state is 26 percent black; 16 percent live in poverty.

Other members of the CBC found no fault in Jackson’s words or Davis’s vote.

“People have a right to vote their constituency, and people have a right to speak their conscience,” said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas.). “Both happened.”

The CBC member who came closest to criticizing Jackson was Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who said, “I wouldn’t have said that. I try to respect the views of all members.”

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) called the remarks “vintage Jesse Jackson,” but said Davis’s vote against healthcare reform was consistent with an established 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. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said racial matters shouldn’t be excluded when members decide their votes “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.”

But Davis said he has to look beyond race, particularly now that he is trying to represent the whole state.

“Rev. Jackson is entitled to his opinion,” Davis said on Thursday. “The voters are entitled to a governor who represents everyone in the state. They’re not looking for someone who speaks for a single community.

“His judgment is through the prism of race.”

Davis, who was also one of two CBC members to vote for stronger abortion restrictions in the healthcare bill, said his “no” vote doesn’t mean that he doesn’t support an overhaul of healthcare, just that he didn’t like his leadership’s bill. He said he prefers a version put together by the Senate Finance Committee, and says he still could vote for a final bill.

“It will look different when it comes back from conference,” Davis said.

He doesn’t even agree with his CBC colleagues on how to honor Jackson. In a statement, he praised Jackson’s campaign “21 years ago.” The CBC was celebrating the 25th anniversary of his 1984 run for governor.

“I give him more credit for ’88,” Davis explained. “In ’88, he came in second. In ’84 he had more trouble breaking beyond the contours of race.”