SAVANNAH, Ga. — A civil rights icon Wednesday sternly questioned U.S. Rep. John Barrow's loyalty to the Democratic Party after the Augusta congressman, facing an uphill re-election fight, declared he will support a Republican-led push to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Atlanta-based activist and former lieutenant to Martin Luther King Jr., said he called Barrow on Wednesday and denounced him for betraying his party. Lowery said he views the contempt vote as nothing more than a Republican attempt to embarrass President Barack Obama before the fall election.
"I told him, 'You are a Republican hiding in Democrat's clothing,'" Lowery told The Associated Press. "...He doesn't count in the Democratic column. He might as well go on and be a Republican."
It was the second time this month that Barrow, the last white Democrat from the Deep South, has sought to put distance between himself and his party. Barrow recently said he won't attend the Democratic National Convention, where the party will officially nominate Obama for a second term.
The national Republican Party has made Barrow a top target since state lawmakers redrew his 12th District last year to favor the GOP by carving out Savannah, the congressman's Democratic base, and replacing it with more conservative rural communities.
The National Rifle Association, a potent political force in Georgia, has warned that it plans to score House members based on the contempt vote. The GOP wants the Obama administration to turn over records related to the Fast and Furious operation, in which authorities allowed guns to flow from the U.S. into Mexico in hopes of tracing them to weapons traffickers. Some of the weapons were lost, and two turned up in the hands of Mexican bandits who killed U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry in a 2010 firefight.
Barrow said Wednesday he wants justice for Terry's family.
"The only way to get to the bottom of what happened is for the Department of Justice to turn over the remaining documents, so that we can work together to ensure this tragedy never happens again," Barrow said in a statement.
It's not the first time Barrow has outraged fellow Democrats. Some Georgia party leaders turned against Barrow in 2010 after he voted against Obama's health care overhaul.
Four Republicans are running in the July 31 primary for a shot at challenging Barrow in the fall, and two of the GOP rivals are also facing questions about their party loyalty. Records show real estate attorney Wright McLeod and construction company owner Rick W. Allen have both given money to and voted for Democrats in the past decade.
Voting records show McLeod, of Augusta, has voted in five Democratic primary elections since 2002 — including the 2008 presidential primary that featured then-Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton. In 2010, the GOP candidate and his wife contributed to the campaign of one of McLeod's law school friends, who ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for Georgia attorney general.
"Based on his voting record, he probably should have gotten some advice before he put his name in the hat to run for this district," said Allen, who began attacking McLeod for his crossover voting record weeks ago.
However, voting records from the Georgia Secretary of State's office show that Allen also cast Democratic ballots in state primaries from 1998 and 2004. In 2001, he gave $1,000 to Charles "Champ" Walker Jr., a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the same House seat that Allen is campaigning for as a Republican.
"He's a tremendous hypocrite," McLeod said of Allen. "He's slinging mud and if it means anything to voters— and I don't know that it does — that mud should be sticking to him as well."
McLeod insists he cast his 2008 presidential primary vote for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richard, not for Obama or Clinton. He said he voted in four other Democratic primaries to support candidates for local office such as sheriff — the exact same reason Allen said he voted Democratic twice since 1998. Allen said he gave Walker money in 2001 after they became friends leading a men's Bible study together.
It's not unusual for Georgia Republicans to have some history of supporting Democrats. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal served in Congress as a Democrat until he switched parties in 1995. His predecessor, Sonny Perdue, became a Republican in 1998 after serving as the Democratic leader in the state Senate.
Still, attorney Maria Sheffield of Dublin — who's competing with McLeod and Allen in the 12th District primary — said their voting histories should matter to district voters looking for a true conservative. State records show Sheffield and a fourth GOP candidate, state Rep. Lee Anderson of Grovetown, have voted only in Republican primaries since 1992.
"There is no conservative out there who can come up with a good reason they voted in a Democratic primary," Sheffield said.