At what point does decency trump politics?

Jeff Emanuel

2/13/2007 12:01:47 AM - Jeff Emanuel

Last week, Congressman Charlie Norwood, six-term Representative from Georgia’s 10th Congressional District, left Washington – perhaps permanently – and returned home to Augusta for hospice care, and to be with his family in what may be the last days of his life. According to a statement released by his office, Norwood “declined further treatment at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC… after battling non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) since mid-November.”

A member of the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” the sixty-five year old Norwood, a dentist by trade (as well as an Army veteran who earned two Bronze Stars in Vietnam), worked tirelessly on several issues of importance both to his state and to the nation. The author of the “Patient’s Bill of Rights,” Norwood spearheaded the effort to secure full medical coverage for military retirees, as well as other comprehensive healthcare reform measures. He also did yeoman’s work on behalf of a broad spectrum of Americans, from individuals, such as special needs students, for whom he authored the Discipline Reform Amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to industries like broadcast television, for which he authored Community Broadcasting Protection Act.

Despite redistricting in 1996 and 2002, Norwood never received less than 52.3% of the vote (in 1996), and received over 60% of the vote five times, including twice over seventy percent. His reelection in 2006, unfortunately, appears to be his last.

Should Norwood be unable to complete his term in Congress, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue will be required, within ten days of his passing, to submit to the Secretary of State a proposed date, at least thirty days away, for a special election.

The Democratic response to Dr. Norwood’s condition has varied widely. The most extreme reaction, though, may be coming from the district’s Republican-heavy Oconee County, where a former chairman of the county Democratic Party made some particularly vile comments regarding the ailing Congressman on his weblog (which, though a personal site, is hosted under the name of the county party.)

Showing his personal stripes as a hateful, callous “progressive,” Matthews, under the title "Charlie Norwood coming home; won't resign seat,” such remarks as, “Oddly he may actually make a case for Dr. Kevorkian style euthanasia in his waning days,” and “...if he is refusing treatment, the least he could while still alive is to resign the seat with dignity intact”. That last had the obligatory “We certainly wish the best for Congressman Norwood” tacked on to the front of it, but, given the context, it does not seem possible that any eight-word phrase could ring more hollow.

Referring to options for district representation in the event that Norwood passes away during this term in Congress, Matthews said that “Governor Perdue will have to call a special election after Norwood's evidently eventual extinction”, and offered up Terry Holley, the Democrat nominee whom Norwood defeated 67.4% to 32.6% this past November, as a candidate for the potentially open seat, citing the fact that it will be “a non-partisan election so he may actually have a chance this time.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Holley, that is not entirely true. What Matthews is actually doing with that last statement is calling on Holley, should he choose to run, to do so under the pretense that he is a non-partisan or independent candidate. The qualifying form for the special election specifically asks party affiliation, leaving it as a blank to be filled in. However, an entrant can voluntarily check the box next to “independent” and run as a non-partisan candidate – even if he happened to be the Democratic nominee only three months ago, and even though doing so would clearly be an attempt to trick people who would perhaps not ordinarily vote Democrat to cast their ballot for him, thinking him to actually be a non-partisan candidate.

Matthews’s calls for an ailing Congressman to either resign his seat or be the victim of “Dr. Kevorkian style euthanasia” as a means of carrying out his “eventual extinction” are beyond the pale. Interestingly, Republicans had the opportunity to show how they would handle a similar situation last December, when Senator Tim Johnson (D-SD) suffered bleeding in the brain as a result of a congenital malformation, and underwent emergency brain surgery. Rather than striving for political expediency at the expense of decency, Republicans, such as those at conservative blog RedState.com, neither called on Senator Johnson to resign, nor excoriated him for not doing so – despite a barely Democratic Senate, which could have been made into an effective Republican majority (counting the Vice President’s vote) had Johnson resigned and been replaced by a Republican gubernatorial appointee. Instead, statements such as "Our thoughts and prayers are with the senator and his family,” “We wish Senator Johnson a speedy recovery,” and, “Our thoughts and prayers remain with Senator Johnson” were the norm – a far cry from the statements of this former Democratic Party Chairman.

At some point, though it seems nearly impossible amidst our present national climate, decency must trump politics. While some seem to have gotten this message loud and clear, others clearly have not. I personally would like to take this chance to offer my best wishes to Senator Johnson, and my best wishes to Representative Norwood and his family – may they be comforted, at peace, and sheltered from vitriol such as this, in what may be their final time together.