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Rep. Charlie Norwood Georgia Republican, dies at 65


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Rep. Charlie Norwood, intrepid Georgia Republican, dies at 65

By BOB KEMPER in Washington, JIM GALLOWAY in Atlanta

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 02/13/07

U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, a strong-willed, salty-tongued Georgia Republican who made it a personal crusade to protect the public from insurance companies he said cared more for profits than patients, died Tuesday at his home in Augusta following a long battle with lung disease and cancer. He was 65.

The House suspended debate on the Iraq war shortly after Norwood died in the early afternoon and offered a moment of silence in his honor. In Georgia, Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered flags on state buildings all around the state lowered to half-staff.

Ben Gray / Staff

Rep. Chuck Martin (right) of Alpharetta joins with other members of the Georgia Legislature in a moment of silence Tuesday afternoon for U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood.


• Norwood's career | Photos

• Sign guest book

"I visited Charlie in the hospital just days ago and was heartened by the strength he showed as he continued to fight for his life. I believed and prayed he would win that fight," Perdue said. "Our nation has lost a true public servant and citizen legislator."

Norwood, a former dentist and outspoken conservative from Augusta, had suffered a series of medical setbacks since 2004, including a lung transplant and subsequent cancer that may have been a side effect of the immune-response-suppressing drugs administered to help his body accept the new lung.

After the cancer, which began in his untransplanted lung and spread to his liver, he underwent chemotherapy. But when he showed no improvement, he decided to forego further treatment and returned to Augusta this month to receive hospice care at his home.

Despite his daunting health problems, Norwood's passion for a cause never wavered, his approach never softened and his concern about what his critics were saying never weighed heavily on his mind.

In his last full term, Norwood was a lightning rod for controversy – and an unapologetic antagonist of liberals — pushing for stricter punitive measures to repel illegal immigrants and for a partial repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The law was intended to protect African-American voting rights by requiring federal approval of election changes in states with a history of discrimination, but Norwood said it amounted to "blatant discrimination" against states like Georgia that had overcome their bigoted pasts.

Norwood's health problems stretched back to 1998, when he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable disease that causes lung tissue to harden, making it increasingly difficult for the victim to breathe. Six years later, Norwood, by then in desperate straits, underwent a single-lung transplant in October 2004. His condition, which he had kept secret, suddenly became public as he had to take an extended leave from Congress.

"From a political point of view, it wasn't anybody's business," Norwood said in an interview in his office following the operation, his combative edge clearly intact. "It wasn't affecting anything I was doing, I just don't want that to be the topic of conversation."

He resumed his place in Congress several months after the transplant, but had to return to the hospital in suburban Washington, D.C., in November 2005 to have a cancerous tumor removed from his other, non-functioning lung. Then, last December, shortly after his re-election, Norwood was back in the hospital to have a cancerous tumor removed from his bile ducts.

"I plan on being back up to speed when the gavel falls to open the new Congress in January," Norwood said at the time.

Before the session could convene, doctors discovered that the cancer had spread to Norwood's liver. Aides and family urged him to focus on his health instead of work. But Norwood insisted he would return to the office, and when the 110th Congress convened Jan. 4, he was on the House floor, an oxygen tank at his feet and his skin a jaundiced yellow, ready to take the oath for his seventh term.

By the time President Bush gave his State of the Union address three weeks later, Norwood was in the hospital, too weak to attend, an absence Bush noted at the top of his speech with wishes for a speedy recovery.

"President Bush's kindness is not only appreciated, but in fact fires me up to get back to work," Norwood said in a statement at the time. "He's got too much on the agenda for me to stay in this bed one minute longer than the doctors make me."

Norwood was first elected to Congress in 1994, part of the Republican revolution that swept control of the House for the first time in 40 years under the leadership of his fellow Georgian, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and the banner of "The Contract with America."

"I remember sitting on the House floor when the balanced-budget amendment passed. I turned to (then-Rep.) Saxby (Chambliss) and I said, 'Saxby, this is why we came here,' " Norwood recalled.

"I loved every second of that," he said. "I was full of fire and brimstone. That first 90 days (of the 1994 Congress) just took the wind out of the sails of the Democrats. I just wished we'd done more."

When the Democrats won back Congress in 2006, Norwood for the first time faced being in the minority. He said he considered it a temporary setback.

"There is a whole new generation of voters who don't remember what the House was like under the Democrats, and now they're going to find out," he said. "When they do, look for a tidal wave in favor of Republicans in 2008."

Among Georgia's seven Republican congressmen, Norwood was by far the most involved in state political affairs, recruiting candidates and resolving behind-the-scene differences — though he liked to speak his mind, even at the risk of offense.

Asked once about when he was going to replace the old Georgia state flag flying in front of his former home with the new one that didn't include the Confederate battle emblem, Norwood said, "When it rots."

Conservative to his core, Norwood called government "oppressive," once telling an AJC reporter, "If I want to put bad wiring in my house and burn my family down, that's my problem," not the government's.

Norwood at times seemed oblivious to or unconcerned about critics who said he ignored black voters in his district. When President Bush proposed pumping more federal money into churches with social service programs, Norwood told a public gathering of supporters, "I can just see a lot of Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons springing up all over the country getting handouts."

A staunch opponent of illegal immigration, he became known for his proposal to end birthright citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born in the United States.

He also engaged in a long-running dispute with the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group. He charged that the organization was racist because of its connections with a youth group that, in its founding documents, calls for the "Chicano inhabitants and civilizers of the northern land of Atzlan" to reclaim the land of their birth — which is believed to include the southwestern United States and California — and mentions the "brutal Gringo invasion" of their territories. La Raza denied the accusation in a detailed posting on its Web site subtitled "NCLR answers critic Norwood."

Norwood was widely discussed as a likely candidate for governor in 2002 and as a possible successor to retiring U.S. Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) in 2004, but he declined to run. He later said he feared his then-secret lung ailment would worsen in the campaign and undermine his party's chances of winning.

Norwood — his full name was Charles Whitlow Norwood Jr. — was born July 27, 1941, in Valdosta. After graduating from Georgia Southern University and the Georgetown University dental school, he spent two years as a dentist in the Army from 1967 to 1969, attaining the rank of captain.

Norwood spent a year in Vietnam, participating in an experimental military program — now standard procedure — that delivered dentists to forward firebases rather than shipping patients to the rear. He was awarded two bronze stars.

Upon discharge, he set up a dental practice in Augusta. He came to politics late in life when, at age 52, he sold his dental practice in 1993 to make a run for Congress, his first attempt at public office. He said he had grown frustrated with the soaring national debt and Uncle Sam's meddling with private businesses.

"I calculated one time that if my grandson was a dentist, and we kept going the way we were going, he'd have to do 900 crowns just to pay his part of the interest on the national debt," Norwood said.

He quickly proved himself to be an extraordinary campaigner. In 1994, he easily defeated one-term Democratic incumbent Don Johnson with an astounding 65 percent of the vote. Only once, in 1996, did he get less than 60 percent of the vote in a district that included Augusta, its suburbs and many small towns in east Georgia.

Norwood made his mark in Congress when he broke ranks with fellow Republicans and launched a decade-long fight to protect patients from health insurance providers. Norwood had dealt with insurance companies for years as a dentist, and he said he had concluded that they wanted "the cheapest care, not the best care" for patients.

From his earliest days in Congress, Norwood would pester then-Speaker Gingrich on flights to and from Atlanta to take up the issue, while in Washington, he was building a coalition of 230 Democrats and Republicans to eventually force Gingrich to bring the patients' bill of rights to a vote.

Among other things, the bill would have allowed patients to sue HMOs that overruled doctors and refused to pay for recommended treatments.

Norwood won a number of battles over his bill in the next 10 years. The House approved it twice, and President Clinton once took up the cause of patients' rights as part of a national campaign to pass it.

But small victories came with large price tags. Norwood's fellow conservatives and President Bush objected to key provisions in the measure, and in 2001 Norwood cut a last-minute deal with Bush — eliminating the right for patients to sue for malpractice — to avoid a presidential veto. Giving in to Bush cost Norwood all of his Democratic support and his patients' bill of rights went down in flames, never to regain its prominence on Congress' agenda.

Norwood felt burned by the White House. And when Bush asked for new trade authority and a new prescription drug benefit for Medicaid patients, Norwood was one of the few Republicans to vote against him. Later, when Norwood talked about that deal that derailed what would have been his legacy on Capitol Hill, he was fatalistic.

There was no choice, he insisted. It was the most practical course at the time, he believed: "We did the right thing."

Survivors include his wife of 42 years, the former Gloria Wilkinson of Valdosta; two grown sons, Charles and Carlton; and four grandchildren.

Under Georgia law, the governor must, within 10 days of the death of a member of Congress, send a writ to the secretary of state's office asking for a non-partisan special election to choose a replacement. The secretary of state then holds the election no earlier than 30 days after receiving the writ.

E-mails: jgalloway@ajc.com, bklemper@ajc.com

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