Who Is Bart Stupak?

Ariana Childs Graham

Who is Bart Stupak and why is he fronting for the far right in the health care debate? An analysis of Stupak's political record and past history reveals that he was the perfect man for the job: a consistently anti-choice Democrat who isn't worried about reelection, who has a strong connection to the Religious Right and who has done their bidding before. He’s their chosen and willing one and by not wavering thus far, he’s done them proud.

Today, Representative Bart Stupak’s (D-MI) name has become synonymous with the relentless efforts to include abortion restrictions in healthcare reform. However, before his eleventh hour heist of meaningful healthcare reform last November, if he was known publicly at all, it wasn’t for his work on anti-choice issues.

The trajectory of Stupak’s life is in many ways a classic chapter from the great American success story: Eagle Scout, community college graduate, police officer.  He later earned a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice from Saginaw Valley State University and then a law degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Michiga. He served one term in the Michigan House of Representatives (from 1989-90), representing Menominee, Delta and Dickinson counties, lost his run for the state senate in 1990 and beat out the Republican incumbent in 1992 for his seat in the US House of Representatives. The narrative suggested on paper by his history—of living a life steeped in hard work, fairness and public service—is one that Stupak himself seems to embrace.

While he has been recognized for his leadership in energy-related matters, Stupak’s primary reputation prior to last November has been as a public servant attentive to the concerns and needs of his constituents in the first Congressional district in Michigan–a predominantly rural area whose residents have not been forgotten by their congressman. A review of Stupak’s legislative agenda in the current session shows that 13 of the 43 bills he has sponsored or co-sponsored relate to local matters, followed by those addressing the usual mix of his priority issues relating to energy, law enforcement, armed forces and healthcare. Rarely, though, has he galvanized a base of supporters around a piece of legislation. The goals for his current term as outlined on his 2008 campaign website are to “advocate for the needs of rural areas, a fair energy policy, healthcare reform, the protection of our Great Lakes, and to ensure that this nation supports our veterans.”

Healthcare has been a recurring theme for Stupak, often steeped in reforms required specifically to meet the needs of Michigan’s first: increasing the amount of payment for Medicare home health services in rural areas, holding health insurance providers accountable to anti-trust laws, ensuring that enrollment in Medicare prescription coverage is voluntary, among others. He is perhaps most well known for his crusade for better management, screening, and education in prescribing and dispensing medication to prevent mistakes in prescribing and adverse reactions to prescription drugs. He has fought for greater restrictions on drugs containing isotretinoin, including the commercially-known drug Accutane. The tragic inspiration for these efforts appears to be the death of his son, Bart Jr., who was using Accutane at the time he committed suicide. Stupak attributes side effects from the Accutane as a contributing factor.

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Judging from his past, it’s pretty safe to say that Stupak didn’t come up with the anti-choice amendment to healthcare reform or the strategy behind it by himself. While he has regularly voted against funding for programs that would reduce unintended pregnancy and transmission of sexually transmitted infections, and address other sexual and reproductive health needs, he’s rarely demonstrated public leadership on these issues. And he’s certainly never been in the spotlight like this before. As he noted recently, much of his anti-choice lobbying has gone on “behind the scenes” with Democratic leadership. And he’s all but said that the lobbyists at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) wrote the Stupak amendment for him.

So, that leaves one important question: Why did the anti-choice lobby choose Stupak to lead the movement to add abortion restrictions to healthcare reform?

He’s anti-choice, though has a “mixed record” when looked at from the absolutist view of some pro-life groups.

Generally speaking, Bart Stupak is a rank-and-file Democrat. He votes with his party 96 percent of the time. He’s with the Democrats on war, spending, energy, government regulation and so on. From his voting record, it seems that the few times that Stupak has broken rank have been on issues pertaining to sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Here’s a quick look at Stupak’s record on sexual and reproductive health:

He voted for the ban on late abortions in both the Clinton and Bush eras, despite the fact that these votes went against the advice of and evidence conferred by the medical community.  He voted for the Global Gag Rule in its many iterations, a policy which research has shown actually results in an increased number of unintended pregnancies and abortions because it prohibits funding of effective family planning programs.  He voted against legislation that would have allowed female members of the military to use their own funds for abortion when serving overseas. He voted for an amendment that would prohibit the the FDA from using funds for any abortion-inducing drugs.

He voted ‘yes’ on the 1993 Hyde Amendment, which prohibited federal funding for abortion except in the case of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. He’s also voted in favor of the “Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. All in all, Stupak has cast an anti-choice vote on over 40 separate occasions.

He has also voted against programs that would reduce unintended pregnancy, which would in turn reduce the need for abortion. For example, he voted to fund abstinence-only education programs in the United States. He has voted in support of family planning programs, but only when the use of funds for abortions is prohibited.  He voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as well as Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He voted for parental notification not only when a minor procures an abortion, but also when they receive contraceptives. He has also consistently voted against embryonic stem cell research.

His opposition to sexual and reproductive health and rights doesn’t stop at his voting record. His organizational affiliations also affirm his anti-choice ideology. The National Right to Life Campaign, which has given him scores ranging from 71 percent to 100 percent (in regard to the compatibility of his votes with the NRLC agenda), backed his 2004 campaign.  He is a member of the Pro-Life Caucus in the House, and he also sits on the Advisory Board of Democrats for Life(DFL).

As a member of DFL, he was an ardent supporter of the 95-10 initiative, which sought to reduce the number of abortions by 95 percent in 10 years through providing “accurate” iinformation about abortion, abortion counseling, tax credits for adoption and so on.  In an interesting twist, he also co-sponsored the “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Act,” legislation which some of his fellow DFL members opposed due to its emphasis on contraception.

Stupak’s voting record and organizational affiliation is more than enough to prove his allegiance to the anti-choice lobby.  Although, given that there are a number of dedicated, “prolife” Democrats, the answer to “Why Stupak?” goes deeper than votes.

He’s done their bidding before.

Every year since Stupak has been in office, an iteration of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would prohibit the discrimination of employees on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, has been introduced to no avail.  In 2007, though, ENDA passed in the House after Democrats dropped transgender rights from the bill.  And there was much speculation and trepidation by advocates of all stripes that ENDA may actually become law.

While the US bishops took no position on the larger bill, they—along with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—were eager to include a religious exemption.  And, much like with healthcare reform, Stupak was their man to get this done.

Stupak, along with Representative George Miller (D-CA), introduced an amendment to ENDA that allowed any religious organization to be exempt from ENDA and also reasserted DOMA. 

In a statement to Congress, Stupak noted the support of the USCCB and said, “No American should have to face discrimination in the workplace, regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. However, religious organizations should be able to hire individuals who agree with their religious beliefs. It is also important to make it explicitly clear that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and that no part of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act could be misconstrued to undercut the Defense of Marriage Act.”

Stupak voted in favor of the bill, which included his amendment.  The legislation subsequently died in the Senate.

In the same year, Stupak sponsored an amendment which failed–with Chris Smith (D-PA) to the Appropriations Bill to keep in place the “Mexico City Policy,” also known as the Global Gag Rule. He also worked with Representative Joesph Pitts (R-PA) to maintain 33 percent of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief’s spending for abstinence-only programs.

It’s as if these were Stupak’s dress rehearsals for the healthcare debacle.

His seat has been secure.

Stupak could never have held healthcare reform captive during an election year if he didn’t feel a certain security about his place in Congress.  When he first ran for the House of Representatives in 1992, he won by 10 points. Since then, his winning margin has grown exponentially. In the 2008 election, Stupak won 68 percent of the vote.

His campaign fundraising has been somewhat minimal at just over $7 millionover the span of his entire career. His top contributors have consistently been healthcare professionals and unions. Aside from a curious piece of legislation that sought to include dental health care in disaster relief services and can be traced back to large campaign contributions from the American Dental Association, he doesn’t seem particularly beholden to his healthcare-related campaign contributors. One of his biggest contributors is Blue Cross/ Blue Shield, and yet he has spoken in support of anti-trust regulations within the insurance industry.

Stupak floated a gubernatorial bid early this year.  However, in late January, he announced that he wouldn’t be running for governor, but would instead be seeking reelection in Congress.  He stated, “My seniority and experience in Congress, where I sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee and serve as Chairman of the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, afford me a significant opportunity to affect positive change.”

Democratic activist and former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall will be challenging Stupak in the primary. The impetus for her run is Stupak’s involvement in healthcare reform.”I decided to run because people were…mad about the health care issue,” Saltonstall stated, “It’s his willingness to not have health care pass over his abortion position that has people like me upset.”

As the citizens of the first Congressional district in Michigan have a long history of loyalty when it comes to voting for their representatives, the primary may prove an uphill battle for Saltonstall. Nonetheless donations to Saltonstall are pouring in and the National Organization for Women has endorsed her candidacy.

He’s “Family.”

Stupak considers himself a “devout Catholic” and his opposition to sexual and reproductive health is undoubtedly connected to his allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic church hierarchy. In one interview, he put it plainly: “Look, I’m a Catholic, I’m pro-life, I listen closely to the socio-economic teachings of the church.”

However, there have been moments when Stupak has questioned the actions of the US bishops. In 2004, Stupak was among the few anti-abortion Democrats who signed on to a letter decrying the actions of four bishops who threatened to deny Communion to pro-choice politicians. In signing on to the letter, Stupak stated, “There are a number of us who are Catholic and who are pro-life, and I don’t think the bishops understand. They think that when there’s a pro-life issue they turn to the Republican party and the Republican party passes it. That is absolutely wrong. The Republican party on its own cannot pass one pro-life, one Catholic issue, without the support of us 30 to 35 pro-life Democrats who vote consistently with the Catholic church and with the pro-life movement on issues.”

With healthcare reform, the USCCB capitalized on these words. They needed a “pro-life” Democrat to do their bidding and they chose Stupak. Stupak himself acknowledges the close working relationship he has had with the USCCB over the past months. Upon passage of his amendment, Stupak stated, “The Catholic church used their power–their clout, if you will–to influence this issue.”

Of course, Stupak is not just Catholic family, he’s “Family” as well.

Stupak is connected to the ultra-conservative, primarily evangelical Christian group, the Fellowship, also known as “the Family.” The Family serves as a catalyst for partnerships and political relationships that advance a fundamentalist agenda.

Despite living in a house on C Street since 2002 that is owned by the Family, Stupak has denied any formal association with the group. However, it seems less than coincidental that Stupak partnered with Joseph Pitts, another member of the Family, when introducing this amendment which has held the health care reform bill hostage. Perhaps the Family has been grooming Stupak to assert a leadership position with the support of long-time vocal anti-choice warriors, such as Pitts, among others.

Some say Stupak is just trying to get his 15 minutes of fame.  And that may be true.  But more likely, Stupak is just capitalizing on the 15 minutes given to him by the anti-choice lobby.  He was the perfect man for the job: a consistently anti-choice Democrat who isn’t worried about reelection, who has a strong connection to the Religious Right and who has done their bidding before. He’s their chosen and willing one and by not wavering thus far, he’s done them proud.

If nothing else, the controversy generated by Stupak’s agenda, and the loss of trust by pro-choice women in the Democratic party as a result of concessions to both Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson both should serve to illustrate to the Democratic leadership the implications for the party of supporting candidates who depart from the Democratic platform on sexual and reproductive health, if in fact it can be assumed these issues are more than nominally still part of the platform at this date.

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