WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre said he listened to the people back home when he decided how to vote, which often meant that the conservative North Carolina Democrat sided with Republicans instead of his own party.
“Too often now legislation is identified as part of a partisan agenda rather than the people’s agenda,” he said. “That may sound philosophical, but it’s also true practically.”
McIntyre announced last month that he will leave Congress at the end of this year after serving 18 years representing a part of southeastern North Carolina he knows well. He is a native of Lumberton in Robeson County, and his family has had roots in that area for 200 years.
During his time in the House, the institution has changed, he said in a recent interview. Issues today are decided on the basis of how they can help advance the political future of the Republican and Democratic parties. Too many lawmakers govern from the fringes.
McIntyre said that “true representative democracy” works when a member of Congress looks at each issue based, “number one, on how it affects the people back home, which is always my threshold question when I look at an issue, and secondly, let’s judge the issue based on its own merit, not whether it has a Democratic sponsor or a Republican sponsor.”
McIntyre was known throughout his career as one of the Democrats mostly likely to break party ranks. He has opposed the Affordable Care Act, and has sided with Republicans on many other occasions. In November, for example, he was one of only seven Democrats who voted for a bill that would make it more difficult for the federal government to block oil and gas development on federal lands.
Was it frustrating as a Democratic leader in the House to try to persuade McIntyre to vote with Democrats?
“Absolutely,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., the assistant Democratic leader. “I was not always pleased. But he was very pleasant to work with.”
Clyburn said he went to McIntyre’s district on his behalf “more than once” and supported his re-elections financially.
“I don’t have a litmus test when it comes to supporting Democrats,” Clyburn said. “I’m a Democrat in leadership and he always voted for me in my leadership positions and so that’s what politics is all about to me, is building relationships.”
“The whole notion you have to always agree is just very unrealistic,” Clyburn added. “But there is a party apparatus that’s I place and you can’t divorce yourself from the party totally.”
And McIntyre didn’t do that. Democrats supported his re-elections. They needed his seat, like all of them, to try to get control as the majority. Republicans always ran against him for the same reason.
Early in McIntyre’s congressional career, after he took office in 1997, the political middle had more clout.
In 1997, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri was the Democratic leader and Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia was Speaker of the House and the Republican leader. During that first session, Republicans had just a six-vote edge.
The fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats then had 23 members, said McIntyre, a member of the group back then.
“Because of our like-mindedness looking at issues and how they affected people in our respective districts, rather than following lockstep any particular party agenda, believe it or not both Gephardt and Gingrich would appeal to us,” McIntyre said. “We could swing the vote either way.”
He didn’t have serious challenges until Republican Ilario Pantano ran in 2010. With support from pro-gun and anti-abortion groups, McIntyre won 54 percent to 46 percent.
Then came the gerrymandering of 2011, when the Republican-led state legislature’s changes to his district split towns and put Lumberton outside the district lines.
McIntyre won by just 654 votes against Republican David Rouzer in 2012, the closest House race nationwide.
The redistricting bothered McIntyre, and not because it affected his re-election changes, said Lachlan McIntosh, a democratic consultant and his former campaign manager.
“He’s since proven he can win in any district they drew for him,” McIntosh said. “He had a real connection with and genuinely cared for the people he represented. Splitting in so many pieces the district he had represented for all those years for partisan political purposes just isn’t something he was OK with.”
McIntyre will leave Congress as a senior Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee and the House Armed Services Committee. He also is a member of the Problem Solvers, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members who meet once or twice a month to look for ways to bridge party differences and get things done.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a conservative Republican from North Carolina’s the state’s 11th District and fellow member of the bipartisan meeting group, described McIntyre as “a man of character willing to work in a bipartisan way.”
McIntyre said the beginning of a public reaction to extreme partisanship is beginning. People, he said, “are yearning for a partnership directly with the people rather than a party’s agenda.”
Even so, he’s leaving. He declined to go into detail about the reasons or to discuss his future plans, saying he’d consider public or private sector work once his last year in Congress is done.
“My family and I are ready for a new chapter and excited about new opportunities to continue helping North Carolina,” he said. “We want to be able to look at new possibilities while we are healthy enough and young enough to do so.”