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Chandler not worried about liberal backlash

Many liberal-leaning Democrats are furious about U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler's no vote on health-care reform Sunday.

Chandler, D-Versailles, can forget about Democratic support in November when he faces a to-be-decided Republican opponent, according to scores of angry phone calls, e-mails and online comments directed at his offices, news organizations and left-leaning Web sites.

"I won't be voting for Congressman Chandler again," wrote a commenter on the Kentucky Democratic Party's Facebook page. "Amen, let Ben Chandler get his support from the Republicans!!!" wrote another.

In an interview Monday, Chandler said his offices have been flooded since the weekend with passionate responses to his health-care reform vote, a lot of it angry, some of it supportive. However, he said he is convinced he represented his constituents and doesn't worry about the uproar.

"I don't think the bill went nearly far enough to address the real problem, and that's the cost escalation of health-care services," said Chandler, first elected in 2004. "I understand there are a bunch of people who aren't happy with me, but it's not the first time."

Political observers say he's still likely to be re-elected.

Outside of some liberal neighborhoods in Lexington, Chandler's 6th District is a centrist-to-conservative place. Its 16 Central Kentucky counties are mostly rural or suburban, and in the previous three presidential elections, the district backed the Republican nominees by fat margins.

Two of Chandler's last three predecessors were Republican. The third, Democrat Scotty Baesler, voted against key parts of Democratic President Bill Clinton's agenda and purposefully avoided Clinton during a presidential visit to Lexington. Voters sent Baesler to Congress three times.

Liberals venting to one another on blogs typically don't decide House races here, said Don Dugi, a Transylvania University political scientist.

"What we're hearing right now is a vocal minority," Dugi said. "I imagine the centrists in the Democratic Party would conclude that reasonable people can disagree on things, particularly if Chandler is seen as voting for the key interests of his district otherwise."

Some local Democratic politicians said they're distressed by Chandler's vote. But they noted that he catches political flak from both sides.

Conservatives criticized Chandler in 2008 for his early endorsement of Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary. They did so again last year when he voted for a "cap and trade" policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal and other fossil fuels.

"I'm reluctant to judge the man by one vote, although I understand that some people will, that some people say this (health-care reform) is the one and only vote that really mattered to them," said Steve Kay, running for an at-large seat on Lexington's Urban County Council.

"He has a somewhat conservative district," Kay added, "and I don't think his vote was wildly out of line with his constituency, even if some of us are disappointed by it."

While some Democrats appear to be steaming at Chandler, an analysis of his House votes by Congressional Quarterly indicates he's growing more loyal to his party the longer he's in Congress.

During Chandler's first two years, he voted with the Democrats 80 percent of the time, according to the analysis. By 2007 and 2008, when he was awarded a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which decides federal spending, Chandler voted with the Democrats 93 percent of the time.

As for the reform bill, the congressman said he studied it as it changed shape over the months. He spoke to Central Kentucky residents and medical professionals who shared his concerns about its huge expense and limited effect on medical costs.

Rural hospitals might be hurt by a cut in payments they receive for providing indigent care, and senior citizens might suffer from Medicare reductions, both of which the bill requires to help pay for its staggering cost, he said. A better bill would address the costs added to health care by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, he said.

Among the constituents urging him to vote "no" was Michael Karpf, executive vice president for health affairs at University of Kentucky HealthCare. Karpf confirmed that Monday.

On the other hand, Chandler said, he supported the bill's extension of insurance coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans. He likes the mandate for coverage despite pre-existing health conditions.

"This was not an easy vote because there was a lot of good stuff in there," he said.

During his congressional career, Chandler has taken about $580,000 in campaign donations from sectors representing health care and insurance, or about 13 percent of his total donations, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Last month, Chandler held a campaign fund-raiser — a bourbon tasting — at the Capitol Hill headquarters of Strategic Health Care, a Washington lobbying firm representing health-care interests in the reform debate.

However, Chandler said, he is not beholden to the insurance industry.

He cited the time, a decade ago as Kentucky's attorney general, when he went after and collected $45 million from Anthem Insurance Companies Inc. after Anthem merged with a non-profit insurer.

"I don't know enough about how this is going to play out politically to be able to make my decisions based on that," he said. "I just had to do what I thought was best."

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