Carolyn Bourdeaux’s budget gambit presents risks back home

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Credit: Alyssa Pointer /

Outside a Democratic gathering in Gwinnett County, several demonstrators held hand-scrawled posters panning U.S. Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux’s vote to advance the $3.5 trillion social policy package. Inside, the first-term Democrat faced a tough question about why she initially opposed the measure.

Her stand with fellow moderates didn’t derail the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s economic agenda. But the crossfire epitomized Bourdeaux’s difficulties as a cautious centrist in a swing district under fire from a resurgent liberal wing eager for sweeping changes.

Bourdeaux was one of 10 Democrats who this week engaged in a standoff with the party’s most powerful leaders, demanding the immediate passage of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package. Doing so would have derailed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s timeline and threatened the delicate legislative process for other Democratic priorities.

Though the group relented, it wasn’t surprising that Bourdeaux bucked leadership on this issue. She ran for office as a numbers geek, leaning on her background as a public policy professor and former state Senate finance guru. When the first version of the budget plan emerged, Bourdeaux talked of donning her “green eyeshades” to scrutinize how it will be financed.

“I believe in fiscal responsibility and that we need to pay for the things that we need to invest in, and I’m willing to stand up and talk about fiscal responsibility,” she said Thursday at the Gwinnett meeting, warning a few dozen Democrats they’ll soon see a new round of attack ads from conservative groups targeting her vote.

“So just be aware that because I’m willing to say things like that, I take an enormous amount of heat for it,” Bourdeaux said.

But her strategy also invited backlash from leading liberals in Georgia. A constellation of influential Democratic organizations assailed her, including groups linked to Stacey Abrams and others representing ethnic minorities that make Bourdeaux’s district in Atlanta’s northeast suburbs so competitive.

Many took up a social media slogan, “#ComeOnCarolyn,” to vent their frustration with Bourdeaux’s response. A coalition of advocacy groups released an open letter pleading with her to think of the “Black and brown voters who secured your seat in Congress.” More than a dozen organizations signed on.

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Among the critics is Nabilah Islam, a Democratic operative who came in third place to Bourdeaux in last year’s party primary. She recounted how she eagerly endorsed Bourdeaux, raised money for her and encouraged her friends and family to support her.

“And now we feel absolutely betrayed that she isn’t listening to the voters that got her elected,” she said. “It feels like she’s trying to play to a constituency that she doesn’t have yet. She has no idea what kind of district the GOP will draw her, and she’s playing chicken with her base.”

‘Can’t be cavalier’

The Republican-controlled General Assembly is set to redraw political boundaries later this year, and it’s unclear what shape Bourdeaux’s district will take. Thanks to its exploding population, the district now spanning parts of Gwinnett and Forsyth counties must shed more than 90,000 voters, according to U.S. census data.

That means the district could shrink in size and become potentially safer for Democrats. It could lead to an attempt to draw an inner suburban district that also reaches into the territory now held by U.S. Rep. Lucy McBath, a fellow Democrat who easily won a second term. Or lawmakers could stretch the district further into rural Georgia, giving it a more conservative tilt.

With so much uncertainty, Bourdeaux’s stance posed a political risk in the still-evolving district, Georgia State University political science professor Amy Steigerwalt said.

She said the liberal Democrats who helped get Bourdeaux elected might long remember her initial opposition to the social policy, which includes funding for universal pre-kindergarten, tuition-free community college and a renewed effort to expand Medicaid in Georgia.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“She is sort of running, on some level, kind of a general-election strategy,” Steigerwalt said. “But the concern could be that it causes a primary challenge from the left.”

Bourdeaux’s aides say some of the pushback was based on bad-faith arguments that she didn’t support items in the spending package, such as expanding Medicaid in Georgia, or that she turned her back on a federal voting rights measure that was wrapped up in this week’s negotiations.

In an interview, Bourdeaux expressed confidence that her constituents weren’t overly concerned by the procedural wrangling and could instead take pride in a legislator “not afraid to take a stand to get things done.”

Indeed, the attendees at the Gwinnett meeting largely steered clear of the Washington melodrama. Bourdeaux was peppered with questions about redistricting, child tax credits and other congressional debates, but she faced only one query about her hesitant approach to the budget plan.

As Bourdeaux left the meeting, Democratic activist Stephen Day followed her outside to thank the congresswoman for raising questions about the multitrillion-dollar budget bill.

“We can’t be cavalier about the future,” he told her, “because we have to be responsible about the cost for today.”