Democrats Should Vote Their Conscience
Occasionalby COLMAN McCARTHY
The Washington Post, July 9, 1991
Congressional Democrats who wonder why the public perceives their party as bland and drifting can alter this on Thursday. In a House of Representatives caucus vote, they are to choose who will become the majority whip, the third-ranking post in the House, just two rungs below the speaker. The 271 Democrats will pick either David E. Bonior of Michigan or Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland.
Bonior, who was called "a voice of conscience" by the late representative Claude Pepper, someone around Washington long enough to know, should be the obvious choice of those Democrats who care about reviving the party from its issueless torpor.
In both personal grace and political substance, Bonior, 15 years in the House, carries on the kind of liberalism that marked the vision of another Michigan Democrat, Sen. Philip Hart, who died in 1976, the year Bonior was elected.
Like Hart, Bonior, 46, has been reflective, compassionate and willing to go below deck to labor in the engine room and learn the gears that keep at least a few of the party's values afloat.
An Air Force veteran who served stateside, he was the founding chair in 1977 of the Vietnam Veterans in Congress. It was to be a group that decided not to stage military parades or pass out medals but to work to get the medical, employment and educational benefits the returning soldiers were being routinely denied. A book he co-wrote, "The Vietnam Veteran: A History of Neglect," details the facts of the postwar battles in Washington on behalf of veterans.
In the 1980s, the decade of death and disappearances in Central America, Bonior consistently rallied House Democrats to oppose arms sales to regimes that were using U.S. weapons to kill their own people. His allegiance to the poor of Central America is visible in both his voting record and personal life.
One event tells the story. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan spoke to a joint session of Congress on the glories of supplying El Salvador's military regime with bullets and bombs. The same night, some Central American refugees were gathering a few blocks from the Capitol at a Catholic-run program for the poor -- So Others Might Eat. They were guests at the organization's annual dinner for volunteers, Bonior being one of them. He went with his two children to the soup kitchen dinner. Salvadorans were there, he explained, and he would learn more from listening to them than from Reagan.
Bonior's opponent, Steny Hoyer, has served 10 years in Congress. He has learned: "Ambition is a virtue." That, in a discussion of his virtuousness.
It is said of Bonior that his votes against federal funding for abortion represent a deviancy the party can't allow. It ought to be viewed the other way: Must every Democratic leader automatically march with the pro-choicers, as if the party's narrowness is set and debate forever closed? Bonior has voted consistently to help remove the reasons that pressure women into seeking abortions. His belief, held by many liberals, is that both the pre-born and born deserve all the humane care the government can provide. That view ought to be seen as an asset for the Democrats.
The party has already rewarded Bonior with positions of trust. He has earned another.
Copyright 1991 The Washington Post