"And let’s talk about the future

Last week, a coalition of 62 human services groups, including chapters of the United Way, YWCA and a variety of religious organizations, sent a letter, imploring members of Indiana’s congressional delegation to vote and override President Bush’s veto of the SCHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. “If the president’s veto is allowed to stand,” they wrote, “hundreds of thousands of children now served will lose their health insurance.”

Under other circumstances, the members of the Coalition on Human Needs would have known there was at least one member of our state’s congressional delegation they could count on to take their side, regardless of the political fall-out. But Rep. Julia Carson wasn’t there.

Congresswoman Carson was unable to be in Washington for last week’s vote for a legitimate reason. She was recovering from a serious infection in her leg, and her doctor told her she wasn’t fit to travel. If any of the rest of us had been in the same spot as Congresswoman Carson, we would have missed that vote, too.

But this doesn’t make the question of Rep. Carson’s health any less worrisome. It doesn’t make her assertion that she will “get well for the rest of the season,” any more reassuring.

Let me say upfront that I am a Julia Carson fan. I have voted for her repeatedly and with enthusiasm. I know that a lot of people wince at her eccentric get-ups, askew wigs and her way of expressing herself — a kind of cross between preaching and the blues that gives the old idea of separation between church and state new meaning.

I have been proud to call Julia, as she is known to her constituents, my representative in Washington, D.C.

This was especially true five years ago, when she voted against giving President Bush authorization to make war in Iraq. At the time, most of our politicians were falling over themselves in what they hoped would look like a patriotic frenzy. Polls showed that a majority of Americans were still wiping the blood from their eyes after 9/11.

Julia Carson, however, saw that her fellow members of the House were too willing to abdicate their constitutional responsibility to determine whether or not we should send our troops into harm’s way. Too willing to let the president do whatever he wanted.

Given the war fever gripping the country, Julia recognized that a vote against authorization could mean the end of her political career. She didn’t let that stop her: She voted her conscience, she voted for the constitution. This was a profile in courage that many politicians today, including some running for president, probably wish they had emulated.

If integrity is a bright strand running through Rep. Carson’s story, the waxing and waning of her health has been a repeated cause for concern, beginning with her first election to Congress in 1996, when she missed her swearing-in ceremony due to double bypass surgery. Last week’s absence notwithstanding, it can be argued in her defense that she has participated in 87 percent of house votes throughout the course of her career.

Perhaps more troubling than Rep. Carson’s missing an important vote last week was the story that accompanied it. The news that her condition was initially kept secret has not been encouraging. While Julia is entitled to a private life, she is an unabashedly public figure – and a public figure with an undeniably complicated health history at that. This situation calls for greater transparency, not less. The consequence is that speculation about her ability to serve will only increase, especially in light of her declared intention to run again next year.

Let’s face it: The question of whether Julia should seek another term is barking like a dog in an empty house. It behooves local Democrats, including Julia herself, to actively consider the question of her successor. The idea that this congressional seat is hers as long as she wants it, a sinecure perpetuated by her vaunted “organization,” does a disservice to everyone concerned.

It should go without saying that the hope here is for Julia Carson to enjoy a complete recovery, enabling her to return to the House for the many important votes she says are coming. But we should also bear in mind that there can be life after Washington. A well-rested Julia Carson could play a dynamic role in helping this city find ways of dealing with the formidable challenges facing our neighborhoods. We could use Julia’s wisdom and plain talk — two qualities that should be brought to bear on the question of whether or not she will be the best candidate to represent this district after 2008.