An Athens native and graduate of the University of Georgia and Harvard Law School, John Jenkins Barrow entered politics in 1990 with his election to the Athens City Council. He won a seat on the newly unified Athens-Clarke County Commission in 1992, where he served until winning Georgia’s 12th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2004.
A Democrat, Barrow was elected to Congress the same year Republicans won control of the Georgia Legislature and undertook a mid-decade redistricting that drew the 12th District out of Athens. While he wasn’t required to, Barrow moved from Athens to Savannah in a redrawn 12th District and narrowly defeated Republican Max Burns to retain his seat in 2006.
Easily re-elected in 2008 and 2010, Barrow faced another challenge when Georgia Republicans again redrew the 12th in 2011, this time omitting Savannah but including all of Richmond and most of Columbia counties. He purchased a house on Wheeler Road in March.
Barrow, 56, is a member of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats. His voting record includes votes against approving the Affordable Care Act and against repealing it and for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
He consistently votes for gun rights and was one of 17 Democrats to join Republicans in voting to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over documents he withheld relating to “Fast and Furious,” a botched investigation into gun sales with Mexico. The NRA recently endorsed Barrow, who faces a challenge from Grovetown Republican Lee Anderson for a fifth term.
Remaining in office as a centrist in today’s hyper-partisan Congress, created by what Barrow termed a “nuclear arms race” of gerrymandering on both sides, is no easy task, Barrow said in a Newsmaker interview with members of The Augusta Chronicle newsroom. But the solution is to elect centrists such as himself, who represent the views of the district, rather than candidates handpicked by the Legislature to shift the power balance in Congress.
“What probably concerns me the most, that’s most under our control, is the level of hyper-partisanship in Congress right now,” he said. “It’s even greater than it was when I first ran… when I genuinely believed that you have to work with folks on both sides of the aisle.”
Barrow, recently ranked as Georgia’s wealthiest Democrat in Congress, insists it is still only centrists such as himself who can bridge the gap in a Congress that is “lurching from one extreme to the other, because politics in this country is rigged to produce one extreme outcome or the other.” The extremes might be converting Medicare, “what is essentially a pension plan that folks have earned and paid into most of their lives” into a private program, or privatizing Social Security.
Acknowledging his stance might confuse voters, Barrow defended his seemingly conflicting votes both against President Obama’s flagship Affordable Care Act in 2010, and then against repealing it this year.
“We tried to make changes, tried to make it better, then we couldn’t make it good enough, so I voted against it,” he said.
Once enacted, however, Barrow voted against repealing it because there were parts of the bill he supported and the Republicans didn’t have an adequate replacement.
Barrow said provisions allowing parents to keep their children insured to age 26 and guaranteeing coverage for individuals with pre-existing conditions were worth his vote against the repeal, although now he’s “ready to vote for a replacement bill” should Mitt Romney win election Nov. 6.
What needs to come out are the individual and employer mandates, the universal coverage provisions that require everyone to participate, as well as the payment advisory board that decides what care will be reimbursed, he said.
“We ended up swallowing a whole bunch of things a lot of folks don’t understand and didn’t necessarily agree with as the price they’ve had to pay,” he said. “I’m working in a bipartisan fashion with members of the House to peel away those provisions of the bill that most folks find difficult to support.”
Barrow had a few encouraging words for Obama, a president with whom opponents say he walks in lockstep.
“Osama bin Laden is dead,” Barrow said, and the administration and its stimulus plan “supported the nuclear renaissance” happening at nearby Plant Vogtle. “Our state could not have survived without that help,” he said.
Beyond his selective support for the Obama administration, Barrow suggested he’s more a mirror of the varied values within the 12th District than a member of one of “two warring tribes more interested in fighting each other.”
Neither side will give up “the nuclear arms race of gerrymandering” for fear the other side “is going to start doing it somewhere else.”
The blame belongs to Congress for not doing its duty of prescribing the time, place and manner of electing representatives, he said.
Allowing state governments to engage in rampant partisan gerrymandering has created “districts that are far more partisan than the people they represent,” Barrow said.
Such districts are created at the state level to allow the most partisan party voters to effectively select a leader at the primary level and re-elect him, time after time.
Voters are growing “sick of having elections decided for them in advance,” Barrow said. “People are waking up to the fact that technology has made it possible what our political predecessors could only dream of, the ability to draw districts made to order. So that one group of politicians, the state Legislature, is choosing our representatives, rather than voters choosing our representatives.”
In an earlier time, when white Democratic congressmen existed in the Deep South, representatives such as Doug Barnard “conformed their politics to the district,” Barrow said. Today, Barrow is the only white Democrat from the five-state region in Congress.