Among his own, this Democrat's alone

Rep. Allen Boyd of Monticello sets himself apart: He's in favor of Bush's Social Security plan.

Published February 15, 2005

WASHINGTON - As President Bush argued for Social Security reform during his State of the Union address, many of the Democrats crowded into the Capitol booed or hissed or, at best, sat silently. All except for the man sitting near the back, the tall rangy guy with the tanned face and white hair.

That was Rep. Allen Boyd, Florida Democrat. Allen Boyd clapped.

The day before, Boyd had gripped the lectern, faced the klieg lights and stepped into the political abyss: He and a Republican colleague were sponsoring a bill to create private Social Security investment accounts, a concept that is fundamental to the president's plan and anathema to Democrats.

Except for Boyd.

And so the questions came at him.

Are any other Democrats backing your bill?

Boyd shook his head. Not yet.

How was the Democratic leadership taking it?

Boyd smiled. "Not too bad."

As the president and Republican leaders try to convince the American people and Congress that Social Security is in dire need of reform, Boyd, a farmer from Monticello, finds himself in a lonely fix: He is the only Democrat on Capitol Hill who publicly agrees, and who supports the sort of sweeping changes advocated by the president.

At their press conference, Boyd and his Republican co-sponsor, Rep. Jim Kolbe of Arizona, sought to explain the merits of their bill. But in a city that seems to run on partisanship, most of the questions focused on Boyd's daring political solo.

"We just ought to cool our heels," Boyd said at one point. He can be a little growly.

"Good policy equals good politics. Let me say that again: Good policy equals good politics."

There was time for one last question, one that Boyd wouldn't have time to fully answer:

Why you?

* * *

F. Allen Boyd Jr. raises cotton, timber, sod and peanuts on the 2,500-acre farm in Jefferson County that his great-great-grandfather first plowed in the 1830s. On his legislative calendar, his staff marks the hunting seasons for deer, turkey, dove and quail. He led a rifle platoon in Vietnam and is one of only two U.S. House members who wear the Combat Infantryman's Badge pinned to their lapel.

When Boyd, 59, first ran for the state House in 1988, he was surrounded by other elected Democrats. Now his sprawling North Florida district is a lonesome patch of Democratic blue in a swamp of Republican red, in Congress and the state Legislature.

But over the past two decades, as the GOP melted the Democratic hold on the South, politicians like Boyd have become rare. The socially and fiscally conservative Democrats who for decades represented rural Southerners have retired or gotten beat, replaced by Republicans whose party message better resounds with the people.

Boyd's 2nd Congressional District is the state's largest, an untidy blotch running east from outside Jacksonville, through Tallahassee, down into the Big Bend and over to Panama City. It includes Democratic-leaning state workers and African-Americans around Tallahassee, as well as suburban Republicans along the coast. There are large numbers of white voters in rural counties like Dixie, Lafayette and Taylor who are registered Democrats, because that's how they were raised, but who haven't voted for a Democrat in years.

Except for Boyd.

"Our people, to a large degree, are not much interested in partisan politics," Boyd said between meeting with constituents in his office. "They're interested in ... the actual person running for office and what they believe in. People like to feel like they can touch you, can get ahold of you if they need you.

"I made a promise when I first ran for office back in 1988: I'd never have an unlisted telephone number at home. And I don't."

President Bush won the 2nd District by 20 percentage points in November. But Boyd beat his Republican opponent by 20 points.

Boyd attributes his success to the strong personal relationships he has developed over the years, as well as to an independent voting record that provides armor against the usual Republican attacks that Democrats are soft on spending, guns and God.

"He is in touch with his people, and he knows what they think, and he knows what they need, and he tends to their needs," said Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida's senior elected Democrat.

Boyd has a centrist record, voting with President Bush about two-thirds of the time last year and splitting with his party on about one-third of votes.

He favors abortion rights, but voted for the ban on partial birth abortion. He backed Healthy Forests, the president's program for easing logging restrictions. He wants to cap federal spending and has voted against the president's tax cuts, on grounds they were too big.

As majority whip in the Florida House, where he served eight years, he developed a reputation for bridging parties. He has tried to do that in Congress as a leader of the Blue Dog Democrats, a group of 35 conservatives who preach fiscal restraint and have tried to push their party to the center.

Much to Boyd's frustration, however, partisanship by both parties has interferred.

"But I'm optimistic," he said. "I think it will change one day. I think most of the American people are in the 60 percent majority who don't cotton to extremist positions."

Most House members get high or low ratings from interest groups, depending on their persuasion, but Boyd gets middling marks from conservatives and liberals alike. He has a 70 percent approval rating from both the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a 50 percent rating from the Christian Coalition and a 35 percent rating from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Boyd opposes gun control and enjoys an "A" grade from the National Rifle Association; every other Florida Democratic House member got an "F." The Annual Boyd Family Charity Dove Hunt has been picketed by animal rights activists.

His biggest campaign contributors last year were the health care and agribusiness industries, which usually fund Republicans, as well as lawyers and labor, Democratic allies.

Republicans used to ask him about switching parties, but Boyd says he stays a Democrat because of the party's commitment to government benevolence, public education and a social safety net, as well as plain tradition. The GOP has given up.

"I grew up a Democrat. My parents were both very conservative, but they came through the Depression, and they understand the role government played in bringing the country back and giving everybody a chance at the American dream," he said.

"We believe that's what the Democrats fight for."

* * *

The meeting begins 15 minutes late, which on Capitol Hill is almost early. It had been a week since he and Kolbe announced their Social Security bill, and Boyd gathered his staff around a small wooden table in his office to assess the fallout and to craft a strategy for the coming weeks.

He asks his legislative director, Jason Quaranto, what he had been hearing from the staffs of other Democratic members.

"Nobody has come to me and said, "You horrible evil person,' but then again, I think the rumblings are out there," Quaranto said.

Back home, his bill already was causing an uproar. It was in all the papers, and his office had received 417 letters about Social Security from constituents in the past week alone. MoveOn.Org, a Democratic-affiliated group, was running ads in Tallahassee condemning investment accounts, and voters wrongly associated the ads with Boyd.

Libby Greer, his chief of staff, and press secretary Melanie Morris tell him they've e-mailed newsletters on Social Security to 18,000 voters, and were about to send brochures aimed at selling reform.

One, for folks 55 and up, explains they would not be affected by Boyd's plan. The other, for younger voters, explains that the number of retirees drawing benefits will soon outpace the number of workers paying into the system.

Allowing workers to invest some Social Security taxes into the stock market is the only way to maintain the system without cutting benefits, it said.

"We just want to make sure the constituents - in what's about to be a heated mess of misinformation - understand what you're for, and connect your name with that," Greer says.

Although Boyd has distanced himself from the president's plan, the White House is thrilled to have a Democrat who backs Bush's concept of private accounts. The administration offered to send an official to his district for town hall meetings to sell reform.

Boyd passes. He's getting enough pressure from Democrats as it is. Then Greer shows him a letter Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fort Lauderdale, had offered to send to newspapers in Boyd's district, applauding him for addressing Social Security. Boyd grunts approval; he'll take it.

Greer then asks, "Do you know The Daily Show ?"

Boyd shakes his head. She continues. "Jon Stewart is this comedian who has this late night show called The Daily Show ."

"No, I don't know anything about him."

"He kind of became the voice of the youth during the election."

Morris explains The Daily Show showed footage of Boyd applauding Bush's Social Security comments during the State of the Union address, while Democrats around him sat silently.

"They said, "Why is this man clapping?"'

Boyd guffaws. "Several Democrats said they wanted to sit next to me, get some air time," he jokes. "I wanted to run away, hide."

Over the weekend, Boyd had attended a Democratic retreat in Williamsburg, Va., where he pitched his plan to party leaders. They were polite but unhelpful.

"Most of the meeting this weekend was like throwing red meat to the left," Boyd tells his staff, shaking his head. "It wasn't about trying to learn more about the issue. ... It was a political rally."

* * *

Even at his most citified, striding the marble halls of the Capitol in a black pin-striped suit, Boyd never seems far from Monticello. He can be confrontational, but he's also polite, and fellow lawmakers said they always know where they stand with him. Asked how the Democratic Party can reconnect with the Southern white voters who have defected in droves, Boyd said, "I wake up every day smokin' on it."

This is a city where partisanship often trumps good governance, where party affiliation determines where members work and sit, and whether their ideas get discussed. In the House, especially, party leaders can deny key committee assignments, squelch bills and exact other forms of retribution for members who stray.

Several times, during their press conference, Boyd and Kolbe noted their reform bill was the only bipartisan one before Congress. At the end, when Boyd was asked - "Why you?" - his answer was characteristically simple:

Because he had supported Kolbe's Social Security bills the past three years. He hadn't been the chief Democratic co-sponsor before, but those guys have all lost or retired. That left him to put his name to it, alone.