Politics & Government

U.S. House: For Spratt, more than one victory at stake this time

U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., greets constituents at a debate at the Baxter Hood Center on Tuesday.
U.S. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., greets constituents at a debate at the Baxter Hood Center on Tuesday.

YORK -- Two months ago at a backyard barbecue not far from his home in York, John Spratt lingered until after dark talking to friends and supporters, many he has known since long before his days in Congress.

A week ago, when the news program "60 Minutes" aired a profile on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, there was Spratt, sitting on the front row as Pelosi delivered a speech to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

These are two pictures that emerge as John Spratt seeks a 13th term in Congress.

In western York County, where he grew up and seemingly knows almost everyone, Spratt still has the same down-to-earth reputation as when he was a student at York High School in the 1950s.

In Washington, though, he is among the leaders of a party that opponents deride as liberal and out-of-touch with South Carolina voters.

Less than two weeks before the Nov. 7 election, polls show Spratt is ahead in a spirited campaign against Republican challenger Ralph Norman. Demo- crats appear poised to take back the House for the first time in 12 years.

The irony, however, is that Spratt's authority in Washington is his greatest liability at home in a conservative-leaning district. Since 2003, Spratt has helped shape the Democratic agenda in the House as assistant to Pelosi, the San Franciscan widely labeled as ultraliberal.

Because of his ties to Pelosi and other left-wing Democrats, even some people who admire Spratt say they cannot vote for him.

The sentiment might be best summed up by York County Councilman Curwood Chappell. "As far as here at home, I would trust my friend John Spratt with my life, my family and my finances. But in Washington, when he is surrounded by the likes of Pelosi, (Ted) Kennedy and other Socialist liberals, I fear for my country," Chappell wrote last week in a letter to The Herald.

The liberal charges bring a familiar response, because Spratt has heard them for years. He insists that he was chosen by Pelosi because he represents the party's moderate-to-conservative wing. A deficit hawk, Spratt touts his efforts in the late 1990s to balance the federal budget as one of his proudest accomplishments.

The Almanac of American Politics rates him as "moderate, a bit to the left of the middle."

"When I first ran 22 years ago, my opponent said the first vote I would cast would be for Tip O'Neill," said Spratt, referring to the former Democratic speaker. "They're still playing from that same old playbook. When I'm in Congress and decisions are made, I'll have a seat at the table."

Not without critics

Among Spratt's fiercest critics in Congress is S.C. Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, whose district stretches from Lexington County south to Beaufort.

Their rivalry seems at times to go beyond policy disagreements. Earlier this year, Wilson called on Spratt to resign as assistant to Pelosi. Wilson said he was "personally ashamed" that Spratt didn't criticize members of his party for refusing to condemn Hezbollah.

Spratt later told a reporter from The (Sumter) Item that Wilson is "crazy."

"It's not personal, and I want to make that clear," Wilson said last week. "The problem is being assistant to someone who has a left-wing voting record. He votes with her (Pelosi) 90 percent of the time."

While Spratt takes the bulk of his criticism from conservatives, he has also surprised others this year with his get-tough rhetoric on illegal immigration.

"Knowing him as a Presbyterian elder, I do expect him to have a higher ethical standard around the issue of immigration -- not to succumb to the pressure to win political points," said the Rev. Sam McGregor of Allison Creek Presbyterian Church, who still plans to vote for Spratt. "I understand this is South Carolina, and that's the way you win elections. My hope is after this election, we're able to have an intelligent conversation."

The most recent flare-up with Norman came when Spratt aired a TV commercial that labels Norman a hypocrite, saying the Republican's development company has been cited for violations by immigrant employees.

Norman points out that the citation, issued by state inspectors in March, makes no mention of illegal immigrants. It states that a pile of garbage and some metal bedsprings were being burned about 300 feet from a home in Rock Hill. But it doesn't identify the people who were responsible for the burning. Only the company is listed as being responsible.

A separate incident report states that an anonymous 911 caller reported a group of Hispanics was responsible for the burning. Spratt insists the 911 call is the basis for the ensuing citation.

But some believe the ad gave an inaccurate impression.

"Generally, I've shied away from being negative on John Spratt," said Republican state Sen. Wes Hayes of Rock Hill, the chairman of Norman's campaign. "But on this particular ad, I just felt some effort needed to be made to set the record straight.

"If he wanted to attack on that issue, I think it could've been done in a way that was less misleading," Hayes said.

Spratt said last week that in retrospect, he would have worded the commercial differently to avoid confusion. But he stands behind the message.

"You've got 30 seconds to get all this stuff in, that's part of the problem," he said.

Expanding on assistant role

In the months before the 2002 midterm election, the Democrats had hopes similar to this year. But after 9-11, the country's focus turned to the war on terrorism, and Republicans scored a major victory, winning back the Senate and strengthening their House majority.

The loss, however, paved the way for Spratt to assume the leadership position he holds today.

U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., the House minority leader, abruptly decided to step down. Pelosi, then the House Democratic whip, decided to run for leader, but she was widely seen as too liberal to lead Democrats back into the mainstream, according to a 2003 article in The Herald.

Hoping to head off that notion, Pelosi sought out fellow Democrats viewed as moderate. She offered the Democrats' top budget position to Spratt, a Southerner she hadn't worked closely with before.

Spratt was hesitant. He knew they were from different wings of the party and didn't want to be a mere symbol.

"I had concerns I would be window dressing," Spratt recalled in the 2003 article.

But he came to see the negotiations as a way to secure the job he really wanted: the top Democratic post on the Budget Committee. He lost an earlier bid for that post in 1993 to U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo of Minnesota.

After weeks of discussion, Pelosi called and they reached a deal. Spratt agreed to be a "team player" if Pelosi would promise to keep him in place on the Budget Committee. Under the deal, Spratt was charged with drafting the Democratic plan on the economy.

If Democrats pick up 15 seats to take a majority, that plan will become much more important. Three years after making the deal with Pelosi, Spratt is hoping to finally get his shot at chairing the Budget Committee.

"The conventional wisdom has long been that the next term will be Spratt's last," Washington Post political columnist Chris Cillizza wrote this month in an online discussion. "But if Democrats regain control of the House, he may rethink that plan."

Spratt told The Herald last week he has thought about retirement, but dismisses talk that it is imminent.

"I certainly want to see what happens in this session of Congress," he said. "If the Democrats take back the House, I'll find my role more satisfying than it's been for a long time."

Even if he becomes a committee chairman in the majority party, friends say Spratt's unassuming, often quiet nature is unlikely to change.

"John's a guy that can sit down and talk to an everyday person and get to his level," said Arthur Black, 56, a fifth-generation York native and lifelong friend. "He's not flashy in his looks. I remember when (his wife) Jane told him he had to get a new suit because his old one had holes in it."

Hoping for 'the flip side'

In 1994, Spratt nearly lost his seat to Rock Hill restaurant owner Larry Bigham, escaping with a 52 percent-to 48-percent margin.

A few months before the election, Spratt's polls showed he was in trouble. He poured money into his campaign and went town to town, sometimes door to door, appealing for votes. Since that race, friends and supporters say his office has been in permanent campaign mode.

"I remember the night Bigham came very, very close and we lost the House," Spratt said last week. "Everybody was joyous. But I was dismayed because I knew what lay ahead. I hope we'll get the flip side of that in this election."

This year for Spratt, unlike any time in the past decade, more is at stake than just another two-year term.