UNION CITY — For two hours, U.S. Rep. David Scott held court at a community meeting for seniors in his district.
He directed staff to pass out business cards and take down the names of constituents who needed help solving their issues. He delivered brief remarks before each speaker, interjecting tidbits about his work in Washington to reduce customer service wait times at the Internal Revenue Service and improve health care for service members.
“Veterans are so important, and I have made them a priority in my political career, as some of you may know,” the Atlanta Democrat told the crowd.
Everything about the event seemed crafted to counter critics of the 78-year-old lawmaker. He was chatty, energetic and full of stats that he rattled off without notes. Here, surrounded by fellow senior citizens, Scott appeared to be sending the message that he is not only up for the job but flourishing at it.
After the 2020 election, Democrats made Scott the first Black person in history to lead the powerful Agriculture Committee. But almost immediately, some members of his party complained privately — and leaked to the media their belief that the panel needed a younger and more agile chairman.
They said Scott was too passive and relied too heavily on staff for the day-to-day tasks that chairing a House committee require. Since then, he has slowed down further. Hobbled by health challenges, he started using crutches and more recently has been seen being pushed to the House floor in a wheelchair.
His public appearances are rare, even during last year’s election season when he generally refused to debate his opponents or participate in voter forums. On Capitol Hill, he prefers to read from prepared statements or convey messaging through press releases.
Scott, who served in the Georgia General Assembly before he was elected to the House in 2002, said his age and physical ailments are a reality but there is no truth to speculation that he is not up to the job. He dismisses his criticism as being fueled by political rivalries and not genuine concern.
“Age happens. As long as I’m doing the job, I’m going to do it,” he said. “As long as the people want me to, I will do it. For me to sit and waste my time with those people out there who are against me, it’s foolishness.”
During the question-and-answer portion of the event at Christian City, more than one person sang his praises. Among them was Union City resident Delores Jefferson, who said his office helped her when others would not.
“I had serious problems all during the pandemic; I had a situation that I was dealing with as far as insurance was concerned,” she said. “Congressman Scott’s office was the only office that really followed up.”
Jefferson, who is 74 and works full time while also taking college courses, rejected the notion that Scott’s age should determine whether he is able to carry out his duties.
“I don’t have a problem with people with age because people with age usually have wisdom,” she said. “And they are willing to do and put forth the effort more so than your younger folks. Even on my job, I can outwork the people that are two times younger than I am, and I’m suffering with arthritis.”
But there are others, including would-be successors, who say Scott should be preparing to step aside and let a younger generation take the reins. Among them is Keisha Sean Waites, who challenged Scott in the 2020 Democratic primary where he received 53% of the vote to her 26%.
Today, Waites is a member of the Atlanta City Council, but rumors persist that she will challenge Scott again in 2024. She said she has nothing to announce yet.
Waites noted that Democrats could retake control of the U.S. House after the 2024 election, which according to current seniority rules means that Scott could once again become the Agriculture chairman tasked with leading meetings, deciding what bills receive hearings and overseeing a large staff.
“The point of sending our representatives to Washington is to be our voice, and if their capacity is limited due to illness or whatever the case may be, I think it puts us at a disservice,” she said. “It is my hope that Congressman Scott is in the process of grooming his successor or having thoughts about who he wants to continue the work that he has started.”
Waites said she is troubled by news reports out of Washington that House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries appears to be shifting responsibilities on agriculture issues away from Scott. In May, Jeffries created an agriculture task force to combat Republicans’ efforts to cut food assistance programs as part of negotiations on the farm bill. Although Scott is the top-ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, he was not selected for the new group.
Jeffries and U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, who serves as the task force chairman, did not tie the new panel’s creation to any concerns about Scott. Still, Scott’s critics characterized the move as a work-around and cited the behind-the-scenes discussions about his abilities to lead such a powerful committee during work on high-stakes legislation such as the farm bill.
A person familiar with how the task force was formed said Jeffries and Scott spoke about it ahead of its creation.
”Leader Jeffries appointed the task force members to support the Agriculture Committee in developing a unified Democratic message to counter such partisan political efforts,” a spokeswoman for Jeffries said.
Waites also cited wider conversations about aging lawmakers in Washington.
Concerns have been escalating about U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and her ability to perform her duties. The 90-year-old missed three months of work due to a bout with shingles earlier this year, and more recently she was hospitalized briefly after a fall at her home. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell has fallen multiple times, and after he froze and appeared confused during a news conference last month there were calls for the 81-year-old to step down.
Even U.S. Rep. John Lewis was criticized for seeking another term in office after his pancreatic cancer diagnosis, leading to an awkward and divisive discussion among party leaders about how to replace him on the ballot when the 80-year-old lawmaker died after winning the Democratic primary but before the general election.
The median age of voting House lawmakers is 57.9 years, according to the Pew Research Center, compared with 65.3 years in the Senate. In the overall population, the median age is 39.
Scott is one of 72 members of the House age 70 or older; an additional 34 are in the Senate.
The effectiveness of a member of Congress is subjective, but when it comes to absences, Scott is far from the worst in his chamber. He has missed 3.4% of votes this year, according to ProPublica. That leaves him tied for 84th worst out of 440 members and delegates and tied with 10 others, including fellow Georgia U.S. Rep. Barry Loudermilk.
Waites said she doesn’t want elderly members pushed out but wishes they would voluntarily consider stepping aside.
“I do believe that folks should have the capacity to serve until they desire not to,” Waites said. “But when it is a hindrance to the voters in the districts and given the significant issues that we are facing in this country right now, we have to make sure that folks are showing up and ready to work every day.”
Scott says he isn’t paying much attention to his critics, but he did respond to the news report that asserted he was not expected to seek reelection in 2024. Scott said he is indeed seeking a 12th term and he wants voters to decide whether he deserves to remain in office.
“I can’t respond to the people who want my job,” he said recently. “If they want it, come on and run for office like I’ve done.”
Despite the persistent rumors about how age and health have diminished him, Scott finished even stronger after the 2022 primary than he did in 2020. He won 66% of the vote in a four-way race. So far, no other Democrats have filed paperwork to challenge him next year, although qualifying is still months away.
He said he remains focused on the issues at hand, including passage of the farm bill, addressing climate change and protecting record investments into historically Black colleges and universities that he helped insert into spending packages over the years.
When complaints about Scott first arose, he had the support of Democratic leaders who themselves are considered part of the old guard, such as then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Whip Jim Clyburn. Even today, colleagues say they have full confidence in Scott’s ability to do the job.
U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Tifton Republican, bristled at the notion that some Democrats view David Scott as an obstacle they need to work around.
“I know he and I don’t vote together all the time, but from the standpoint of being a good man and an effective leader on the Ag Committee, he is,” Scott said. “So if someone in the Democratic Party was trying to undermine him, I would think that would meet a tremendous amount of resistance.”