Rep. Bart Stupak’s nearly two decades in Congress might have ended with a bang, but for years, his tenure had more of a contented hum.
The nine-term Michigan Democrat was known as a quiet but gregarious colleague, a former Eagle Scout who frequented the House gym and played a mean first base on the Congressional baseball team.
He counts among his biggest accomplishments some decidedly unglamorous victories: providing attentive constituent service and protecting the Great Lakes that define his district.
But during the heated debate over health care legislation earlier this year, Stupak found himself in the unfamiliar glare of the national spotlight. As the sponsor of an amendment to bar federal funds from being used to pay for abortions, Stupak and a handful of Democrats threatened to blow up what was already a tenuous legislative agreement.
Stupak acquiesced after getting an executive order that barred the funding — but not before the spotlight singed him.
He announced his retirement in April, a decision that had been coming for years.
He recently sat down with Roll Call to discuss his frustrations during the health care debate, why he’s called “the guardian of the Great Lakes,” and what he’ll do after leaving the “best job” he ever had.
The following is an edited transcript.
On How He’s Preparing to Leave Congress and His Colleagues
I’m not saying goodbye, because I’m sure I’m going to see them, and in some form or fashion, I’m going to be in Washington. I left on my own volition with what I wanted to do. A lot of them wanted to serve longer and could not. I feel sorry for those Members, so I’m more reaching out to those Members.
On His Decision Not to Seek Re-Election
Even though I was looking to get out as early as 2005, I always stayed on for one more reason, or someone convinced me to run one more time. And the last couple times I ran, I no longer ran because I had to have this job, I ran because other people wanted me to have this job. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do.
And that was a struggle for me, though I enjoyed the job immensely. It’s the best job I ever had in the world. I want to do something else. I’m a young guy, and I want to do other things, try other things. That’s just my curiosity. But I found I was just running for other people, not what I or my family wanted me to do.
On His Immediate Future
One interesting proposal is that — hopefully, we’ll finalize in the next week or two — is to go up to Harvard and teach at the Kennedy School, the institute of politics, to be a fellow up there. They offered that way back in the summer.
That’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, I’d like to do … and I’m honored to be asked to do it.
On What He’ll Miss Most About Serving in Congress
No doubt the members and staff. We’ve got fine people working here, and Members of Congress are some of my closest friends.
I will miss maybe being in the gym first thing in the morning, like I do everyday, and seeing the guys, Democrats and Republicans. Or playing on the Congressional baseball team.
You build a life different than you see on the floor or what people see on TV. You learn to get to know people, because we’re in stressed situations, tense situations at times. They become some of your closest friends. I will miss that interaction.
On His Biggest Accomplishments
I’m most proud of the constituent service that we did for northern Michigan … From a legislator’s point of view, no doubt, health care … After being here for 18 years and seeing health care start and stop, and start and stop, I was glad to play a significant role to push it over the finish line.
Back home, I’m known as the guardian of the Great Lakes, and since my first day here, I always protected those Great Lakes. Those are my biggest two, from a professional point of view, legislative accomplishments that I look to with pride.
On His Role in the Health Care Debate
I’m more frustrated with the misinformation about what’s out there about the health care bill and the role I played. It was not Bart Stupak and the right-to-life Democrats who injected abortion into the debate, we tried to keep it out of the debate. We had to respond to amendments put forth in committee … when pro-choice groups put their amendments in to pay for abortion, for some of us, we could not accept that legislation, and so we did our counter-amendment.
I get all the blame for it … I guess [I feel] frustration that people don’t know the history after all we went through.
On the Scrutiny the Health Care Vote Brought
I used the media scrutiny to get our message across. There were times when the Democratic leadership did not want to negotiate with us. I felt ... we handled it appropriately; we got what we wanted. We’re proud of that.
The frustrating part was when they attacked my friends, my family, my faith, who I lived with on Capitol Hill … it really got pretty personal.
People don’t realize, we didn’t go through the regular channels to negotiate the executive order. We met away from here, away from the White House, so we could have a conversation without media scrutiny. The hardest part was ditching the media, but we were able to do so at least for a few hours.
His Advice to Incoming Members of Congress
I would tell new members coming in, “Stop and enjoy this experience. Get to know your colleagues.” I know my colleagues well, but I always went home every weekend, and never really traveled much abroad. That’s part of the learning process, and I encourage them to do that.
You have many opportunities to do many, many things here — as long as you stay true to your district and go back to your district. I kept myself so busy I never had time to do some of the neat things you’re allowed to do, so you know they say that as you’re going along, always stop and smell the roses — they should do that.
This is a great country, and I’m sure they’ll take care of it for us.