WASHINGTON — It is safe to say that until last week, Bill Posey was one of Florida's least-known members of Congress, a freshman Republican who bears a passing resemblance to the mild-mannered Mister Rogers.
During 16 years representing the Melbourne area in the state Legislature, Posey was best known for being reasonable and low key, a staunch conservative who had a reputation for working with Democrats on tough issues.
That changed last week, after Posey quietly introduced a bill in the House that would require presidential candidates to submit their birth certificates to prove they are really U.S. citizens.
Now he's the butt of jokes on late-night TV and the target of considerable venom on liberal-leaning Web sites like Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo.
Keith Olbermann, MSNBC's liberal commentator, deemed him the "World's Worst Person of the Day" on Tuesday.
Posey has been portrayed as something of a nut for what is widely seen as an attempt to legitimize the fringe belief that President Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen.
"So, Congressman, what you should do is stop embarrassing yourself and take the Reynolds Wrap off your head," Olbermann scolded.
A day later, Posey leaned back in his chair in his spacious Capitol Hill office, pressed his fingertips together and turned his eyes toward the ceiling, a man trying to center himself in an unexpected storm. The classical music was turned up loud.
"You don't know me," he said slowly, leveling his gaze. "So let me give you a little background."
In the Florida Legislature, Posey was known for pushing government accountability. In 2001, following the troubled 2000 presidential election, he was tapped to lead the Senate committee responsible for overhauling state election laws. That yielded a bipartisan package that banned punch-card ballots, introduced early voting and created provisional ballots, so people whose names aren't on the rolls could cast a vote and have the dispute resolved later.
Since being sworn into Congress in early January, two weeks before Obama's historic inauguration, Posey said he has gotten calls and e-mails from folks back home questioning whether the president is really a citizen, or has a valid Hawaiian birth certificate.
"We routinely get calls from constituents, and every constituent who calls or writes about it has just discovered it," Posey said. "They just now heard about the issue, and they have no idea it's settled. They think it's new."
The Constitution requires the president to be a "natural born citizen." Rumors that Obama was born in his father's homeland of Kenya, rather than Hawaii, simmered throughout the campaign, fed largely by anonymous e-mails and conservative commentators on TV and talk radio.
Obama eventually posted his birth certificate on his campaign Web site. The Hawaiian health secretary vouched for it. Still unconvinced, critics called it a forgery.
Posey insists his goal was simply to put the rumors to rest, and ensure no future candidate faces the questions over a birth certificate that have dogged Obama.
"If he had filed that the very first day he filed for office, we wouldn't be having any problems right now," Posey said.
The birth certificate requirement would take effect in 2012, when Obama would be up for re-election.
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Posey, 61, insists he's no partisan bomb thrower, and he names several prominent Democrats in Tallahassee who will vouch for him, including Sen. Al Lawson, the Senate minority leader, and Sen. Dave Aronberg of Greenacres.
And they do, describing him as a friend and worthy lawmaker. But on this bill, they can't imagine what he was thinking.
"People are going to look at you peculiar if you're going to have a bill that kind of, somewhat, challenges the president of the United States on his citizenship," Lawson said. "I think that's inappropriate. I would think that he should withdraw that bill and maybe apologize to the public."
Posey seems genuinely baffled by the negative reaction. It could be a bit naive, given how widespread and divisive the controversy was during the campaign.
If a Republican had won the White House, he still would have filed the bill, Posey said. "I'm going to say let's do this, and there's nothing left to b---- about. … I assumed the other side would like that."
The other side is Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, a tweedy, energetic liberal who often greets people with "Aloha." Right now he is wearing a scowl.
"Why the hell would anybody do this?" he says of Posey's bill, adding angry comments about "black-helicopter people" and "the kind of sick politics that permeates a certain portion of the electorate."
Abercrombie was friends with Obama's parents when they were college students in Honolulu, back in the early 1960s, when Ann Dunham Obama was pregnant with the future president. He first met Barack Jr. as an infant.
"It's one thing to try to be responsive to your constituents, no matter how marginal," Abercrombie said. "I understand that. But to take it to the point of putting it into a bill — you open yourself up, then, to having your judgment questioned."
But if citizenship is required, why not require a birth certificate?
"What you do, generally, with legislation is you … address common issues or concerns," Abercrombie said. "The citizenship of someone who has reached the point of running for president of the United States is not really an issue."
Despite the heat, Posey said reaction from his constituents has been positive. Most tell him they figured you would need to file a birth certificate to run for president anyhow. So do the House colleagues he has discussed the bill with, he said.
Even so, it still has no co-sponsors.
Staff writer Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report. Wes Allison can be reached at [email protected] or (202) 463-0577.