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Exit Interview: John Barrow Laments Hyper-Partisan Congress

Barrow lost re-election in November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Barrow lost re-election in November. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Defeating Georgia Rep. John Barrow, the last white House Democrat in the Deep South, may have been one of the House GOP’s biggest feats  in last month’s near sweep of the 2014 elections.  

In an exclusive exit interview with CQ Roll Call Thursday — hours before Barrow’s final vote of his decade-long Capitol Hill career — he did not rule out a future bid. “It was an unusual set of circumstances that brought me here, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s an unusual set of circumstances that’s taken me away,” Barrow said. “If an unusual set of circumstances came up down the road, I wouldn’t rule it out.”  

Barrow hasn’t thought too far to the future yet, though. Instead, the 59-year-old reflected on his congressional career while seated in the Rayburn Room off the House floor. By the last days of the lame-duck session, Barrow, like other outgoing members, had been ejected from his office and relegated to a cubicle farm in the basement.  

He, along with outgoing Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., will leave a Congress as the last white Democrats from the Deep South.  

But Barrow said if Democrats, “focus on opportunity and the importance of economic opportunity and growth,” the party can have a resurgence in the region. Currently, he said his constituents’ view of his party is based on their view of some Democratic personalities in Congress — such as outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.  

“The image that folks have of Democrats in general is largely based on the image folks have of some Democrats who are the central characters in the current drama,” Barrow said. “And you can’t change much about that except wait for the characters to change.”  

He also lamented Congress’ slide into a hyper-partisan, gridlock-riddled body as a product of gerrymandering. He said the vast number of safe seats on both sides have weeded out moderate members over the past few cycles and diminished the need for compromise. The discussion was especially fitting as, just a few feet away, the House quarreled over a crucial bill that would fund the government for the next fiscal year.  

“If we had a significant, substantial increase in the number of competitive seats, if we had 250 competitive seats, we would not have rapid turnover,” Barrow said. “We would have members of Congress behaving and voting and serving differently in order to achieve their goal of re-election to serve their constituents. And big money’s impact would be reduced because it would play out on a field 10 times as large as the one they get to play on now.”  

Barrow knows the impact of gerrymandering personally.  

Days after he first won a House seat in 2004, Georgia Republicans took control of the General Assembly and redrew his district’s lines to favor a Republican and remove the congressman’s ancestral home of Athens. Barrow moved to Savannah and faced a bruising rematch with the Republican, winning a second term by half a point.  

The ground shifted beneath Barrow again in 2012, when Republicans drew Savannah out of his district — forcing him to move to Augusta, Ga. That year, Barrow went on to defeat a weak GOP opponent by a 7-point margin.  

But in 2014, Barrow could not withstand midterm headwinds in the 12th District, which GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried by a 12-point margin in 2012. Barrow said Republicans in his district — which largely outnumber Democrats — voted against him to send a message to President Barack Obama.  

Barrow ultimately lost to Rep.-elect Rick Allen by a 10-point margin .  

Looking back on his accomplishments, Barrow rattled off local successes he’s proud he helped achieve — including deepening the Port of Savannah and bringing the Army’s Cyber Command from Maryland to Fort Gordon in Augusta. He said he’s most proud of his office’s commitment to constituent services, something he said he earned praise for even by “adversaries and rivals campaign after campaign.”  

“You don’t have to be in the majority and you don’t have to have a lot of seniority, you can be a junior member in the minority and still have an impact on the people that you represent,” Barrow said, noting the millions of dollars he and his delivered to the district.  

Barrow also said he’ll miss the friends he made on Capitol Hill. That includes his staff, many of whom have been in his office from the start of his career, as well as his allies in the Blue Dog Coalition, where he served as co-chairman, and GOP Reps. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, Reid Ribble of Wisconsin and Scott Rigell of Virginia, whom he called his closest friends in Congress.  

And while Barrow is resigned to the fact he will likely be remembered as the last white Democrat from the Deep South, he hopes his legacy will also include his willingness to compromise.  

“I think they’ve already written the one-sentence epitaph for me in the New York Times: the last white Democrat from the Deep South,” Barrow said. “What I hope folks will remember and take some hope from is the fact that it is possible to come to this place and hang with these people for 10 years and not be turned into the kind of partisan groupthink, run with the herd thing that everybody sees from a distance, and everybody despises.”  

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