U.S. Rep. Ron Barber has got himself in a bind.
On Monday, he angered many Southern Arizona Democrats by voting with Republicans in the U.S. House on a bill that would have delayed a key part of the Affordable Care Act in order to prevent the government shutdown.
On Tuesday, his top GOP opponent, Martha McSally, formally announced her candidacy, denouncing “the absolute failure of leadership we have in D.C. right now.”
Never mind that Barber said he made the Monday vote in order to avoid the shutdown McSally denounced. Politically, it’s a trap for Barber, an incumbent Democrat in a very competitive district. Democrats are hammering him for voting with Republicans, and Republicans can hammer him for being part of D.C. dysfunction.
Many of Barber’s supporters vented a feeling of betrayal Tuesday. They say his vote, for a bill that would have funded the government but delayed the penalty for individuals who don’t get health insurance, amounted to accepting intolerable Republican tactics in the House.
“This was about whether you legitimize extortion as a form of government,” Tucsonan Bill Pierce told me Tuesday. “He’s paying heed to the unruly child in the family, and ignoring the good one.”
Karen Clifton, a Tucson Democrat who has supported Barber, said she spent 45 minutes on the phone with his office Tuesday.
“There are certain issues to me that are deal-breakers, and this is one of them,” Clifton said. “Finally we’re there, and he wants to delay again.”
The blowback was significant enough that Barber convened a conference call Tuesday with Pima County Democratic Party Chair Don Jorgensen, former Chair Jeff Rogers and a half-dozen others to explain his vote.
How was he received? I asked Rogers. The answer: “Not well.”
“These votes are largely symbolic, but symbolism has its value,” Rogers said.
Jorgensen recounted, “He was pretty straightforward with his reasons, and so were we, about explaining why we disagree with him.”
Barber told me Tuesday, just before that conference call, that he supported the delay in the individual mandate in part because the administration has already delayed imposing penalties for businesses that do not provide health insurance. If the Senate had passed the bill Barber voted for, it would have meant that people who do not sign up for health insurance in the first year of the program would not be fined.
Delaying “the individual mandate is not about torpedoing or destroying the Affordable Care Act, which I support in the main,” Barber said.
“It’s wrong to shut down the government. There’s no other way to say it. It’s just plain wrong,” he said, adding that he will donate his salary to charity during the shutdown.
Phoenix Democratic U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema voted the same way Barber did, raising similar protests among her Democratic supporters. However, Flagstaff Democratic U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents much of the Tucson area’s northwest side in a highly competitive district, voted against the same measure.
“Even when I disagree with Ron, I give him credit with letting us know exactly where he stands,” Jorgensen said.
For her part, McSally offered sweeping criticism of D.C. gridlock Tuesday and touted her own leadership qualities.
“Together we can change Washington by changing who we send to Washington,” she said in her speech.
But afterward, asked whether she would have voted against Republicans and for a “clean continuing resolution” that would have kept the government running without bringing the Affordable Care Act into the issue, she wouldn’t answer.
“The fact that we’re even here is the problem,” McSally said. “How we got to here I totally disagree with. I think all the way around Washington has failed us.”
“What I would bring is leadership with credibility and be willing to create a different energy there,” McSally said, explaining she would “create an energy of leadership, unity, solving problems and doing your job.”
In other words, she’s a challenger and doesn’t feel the need to take a stand, especially when the incumbent is already taking heat over the stand he’s taken.