Barrow’s political odyssey has often been an uphill trek

Barrow on the move

As the last of the Blue Dog Democrats, U.S. Rep. John Barrow is known to take positions that don’t always conform with the other members of his party in Congress. Redistricting has twice forced Barrow to relocate his home.

Athens — Barrow grew up here, attended the University of Georgia and made the city his home base when he was first elected to Congress in 2004.

Savannah — Republicans in the General Assembly pushed through a redistricting of the state in 2005 that cut Athens out of the 12th Congressional District. Barrow responded by moving to Savannah.

Augusta — In 2012, redistricting changed Barrow’s district once again, now removing Savannah from his constituency. He moved to Augusta.

About this story

Democratic U.S. Rep. John Barrow has managed to win several hotly contested elections to retain his congressional seat. He may face his toughest race yet this fall against construction company owner Rick Allen. Earlier this week, a media study showed more ads had been purchased in a recent two-week period in Barrow’s 12th Congressional District than in any other district in the country. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution decided to take a closer look at Barrow and his ability to survive.

John Barrow’s political road began here, at the dinner table with his activist parents and at heated County Commission meetings where he drew at least one threatened thrashing.

After winning a seat in the U.S. House a decade ago, Barrow’s path shifted along with his twice-redrawn congressional district. He moved to Savannah and then Augusta, where Barrow faces his most difficult re-election fight this fall against construction company owner Rick Allen.

Many in Athens detected an ideological shift, as well, from a liberal outlook in line with this university town to a crusader for gun rights and against excessive government spending and regulation.

Barrow, 58, says he has always kept the same pragmatic politics, and even his biggest foes in his Athens days regard him with a measure of awe for his ability to continually survive Republican assaults.

“He’s doing what he’s made to do,” said Doc Eldridge, the former mayor who once half-jokingly threatened Barrow with a spiked mace during a meeting.

Barrow’s parents were progressive royalty in Athens. His father, longtime Superior Court Judge James Barrow, helped guide desegregation in the area. His mother, Phyllis, was a leader in the local Democratic Party.

“I was raised on the idea that you ought to be involved in the public life of your community as a voter, as a citizen, as a volunteer,” Barrow said.

He excelled in school, attending the University of Georgia before going on to Harvard Law School. Barrow returned to Athens to practice law, and in 1986 he ran for the state House, losing a close Democratic primary.

‘A know-it-all Harvard attorney’

In 1990, Athens and Clarke County were consolidating their governments, and Barrow decided to run for a seat on the newly created City-County Commission because he was displeased with the plans to build the Classic Center.

Then-Mayor Gwen O’Looney delegated the Classic Center fight to Barrow and, she said, he delivered — successfully pushing for the arena to be larger and to have a more historic look than the original postmodern design.

“He was very aggressive and confident in his move toward solving problems through good law,” O’Looney said.

Nerves often frayed among the commissioners as they worked to merge competing laws and ordinances of the city and county governments. Barrow’s style did not always sit well.

“He was very overbearing because he was a know-it-all Harvard attorney,” said Marilyn Farmer, a fellow commissioner at the time. “We’d call him a silk stocking attorney. And I mean, he just thought he had an opinion about everything and he was usually the one that was right.”

He was generally known as a liberal, though the commission was not debating national hot-button topics. Barrow frequently opposed new development that would disturb local neighborhoods and thus was seen as less business-friendly.

But Jane Kidd, an Athens resident and former state Democratic Party chairwoman, said “liberal” in Barrow’s case was too often conflated with “opinionated.”

“I do think that was maybe an unfair label that he got when he was on the County Commission, just because he was so outspoken,” Kidd said. “He was always involved with whatever was going on and had an opinion.”

Winning in tough atmosphere

Ahead of the 2002 election, Georgia Democrats drew Athens into a new Democratic-leaning congressional district that snaked to Savannah. But Republican Max Burns won the seat in a surprise.

So in 2004 Barrow saw his opening. He triumphed in a four-way primary against foes who often tacked to his left, as Barrow pointed out this week in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, then took out Burns.

Republicans, having seized full power in Atlanta, then executed a rare middecade redistricting. With Athens out of his 12th District, Barrow moved to Savannah and kept winning.

After the 2010 census, Republicans clipped all of Savannah out of the district and Barrow moved to Augusta. Two years ago Barrow defeated rhetorically challenged state Rep. Lee Anderson, outperforming President Barack Obama in the district by 10 percentage points. Allen, who lost a primary runoff to Anderson, triumphed in his primary this year without a runoff and will have the advantage of a midterm turnout that generally tilts more Republican.

In Congress, Barrow frequently breaks with his party, citing the wishes of his conservative-leaning district. He has consistently earned high marks from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association, and middling scores — at least for a Democrat — from environmental and labor groups.

Barrow voted against the law known as Obamacare and a cap-and-trade system to curb carbon pollution, but he voted for the stimulus law and against an outright repeal of Obamacare. The record earned him enemies at both ends of the political spectrum but friends in the dwindling middle.

“Some people here who supported John when he was here and after he was in Congress, and even after he was in Congress but not in this district, have gradually become disillusioned when he voted against Obamacare and those things,” said Pete McCommons, the editor and publisher of the Athens alternative weekly newspaper The Flagpole.

“But of course, he’s got to do what he’s got to do,” McCommons said. “If you live among a bunch of people who assure you that the sky is green, then you better see a little tint in it yourself.”

Barrow said his conservative-leaning district fits his personal views.

“I do what I think is in the best interest of the people I represent,” he said. “But I also share their values and concerns, so I don’t think there’s a great conflict there.”

Augusta attorney Randy Frails said he backs Barrow for his “practical approach.”

“Everybody who has a ‘D’ next to his name is not some screaming bloody liberal,” Frails said. “I’m not that way, and John’s not that way.”

Last of the Blue Dogs

Barrow’s relentless travel schedule took him this week to a lunch meeting of the Swainsboro Exchange Club, even though he was not on the docket to speak.

A Georgia Farm Bureau representative delivered a pitch against a proposed Environmental Protection Agency water regulation, and Barrow chimed in with his opposition. Barrow joined House Republicans on a vote to overturn the new rule in September.

The Senate did not act, and Barrow pointed out to the group that a “paralyzed” Congress is in part to blame for the EPA moving ahead.

Allen and national Republicans’ arguments against Barrow focus primarily on reminding voters that he has a “D” next to his name and of Congress’ unpopularity. In an interview with the AJC, Allen scoffed at Barrow’s bipartisanship and said what’s needed in Congress is “leadership.”

“I guess he wakes up one morning and he says, ‘OK, this is who I am.’ And he voted liberal,” Allen said. “And he wakes up the next morning and he reads the paper and sees he’s in trouble and says, ‘I’ve got to vote conservative today.’

“Seriously, the guy’s all over the board. He refuses to take a stand and he calls that bipartisanship.”

Barrow spends a lot of time using the word "they" to talk about Congress, while promoting his bills tweaking his colleagues — such as one barring members from flying first class.

In essence, Barrow’s contradictory message is that voters eager to change the way Congress operates should elect him to a sixth term.

It makes sense, he contends, because centrists are not part of the problem. Recent wave elections and gerrymandering have decimated Blue Dog Democrats — Barrow is the last white Democrat from the Deep South in the House — and Notheastern Republicans.

“Moderates on both sides, creamed,” Barrow told the AJC in Swainsboro. “There are only a few of us left. And I don’t think anybody thinks the reason we’re as messed up as we are is because we have too many people like me. It’s quite the opposite: We’ve got too few.”