Democratic Outsider Marcy Kaptur Outlasts All U.S. House Women

By James Rowley

For Rep. Marcy Kaptur, soon to become the longest-serving woman in House history, members of her own party erected some of the tallest barriers to her access to power.

Born in a busy factory town, Kaptur was raised in a Roman Catholic home, the daughter of a grocer and auto parts production worker.

She grew up to become an opponent of taxpayer-funded abortion and the free-trade deals championed by the last two Democratic presidents -- positions that she stuck to even when they put her out of sync with her party’s leaders in Congress. Over time, the Midwesterner said she came to feel like an outsider in “too much of a coastal party” financed by Wall Street and Silicon Valley. “People didn’t really understand what was happening on the interior, the region that I represent,” she said.

Watch the interview: BGOV Video

Later this month, the Polish-American daughter of Toledo, Ohio, will have served in the House for more than 35.2 years, setting a new record.

“Though I will become the longest serving woman in House history, what I am most grateful for in my career is that I really do come from the working class, blue-collar America,’' Kaptur said in an interview. “It hasn’t always been comfortable to hear my voice because it hasn’t been here much.’'

There were fewer than two-dozen female House members and two women in the Senate when Kaptur arrived in Congress in 1983. Now there are 111 -- 89 in the House (including five non-voting delegates) and 22 in the Senate.

The small group of women who greeted Kaptur in the House included fellow Democrat Barbara Mikulski (Md.), who went on to serve in Congress longer than any woman: 10 years in the House and 30 in the Senate.

The current longevity record for a woman in the House was set by Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers (R-Mass.). She was elected June 30, 1925 to succeed her late husband, Rep. John J. Rogers. The daughter of a wealthy textile executive, Rogers represented a northeastern Massachusetts House district until her death in 1960.

Kaptur recounted the careers of Rogers and other political forebears in a 1996 book, “Women of Congress, A Twentieth-Century Odyssey.”

In the book, Kaptur wrote about how those women shed “traditional cultural rules defined by gender.” When talking about her own career, though, Kaptur emphasizes differences of economics rather than gender.

The election of President Donald Trump, propelled by sweeping the Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, shows that Democrats “need to understand that there are other industries in this country than the finance industry,’' Kaptur said.

NAFTA `Heartbreaker’

Kaptur started her career as a city planner in Ohio and served as a White House domestic policy adviser for President Jimmy Carter. When Democratic officials in her hometown recruited her to run for Congress, unemployment in Toledo was around 19 percent during a nationwide recession.

“It was actually the condition of working people that drove me to change my life and run for office,’' she said.Kaptur defeated a one-term Republican who had been swept into office as part of Ronald Reagan’s presidential landslide 1980, and since then has won re-election as a champion of union workers and manufacturing that’s been hurt by international trade.

The 1993 vote by a Democratic-controlled Congress to ratify the North American Free Trade Agreement -- negotiated by President George H.W. Bush and pushed through Congress by President Bill Clinton -- “was a heartbreaker,’' said Kaptur.

“All the promises that were made were not kept,’' she said. Instead of adding millions of U.S. manufacturing jobs, the trade pact “actually created huge empty production platforms all over my region.’'

While on the losing side of the NAFTA vote, Kaptur voted with the majority that same year when Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act ( Public Law 103-3). After voting for the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell military policy in 1993, she again voted with the majority in 2010 to repeal it.

Her part of congressional history also includes two votes against the use of force in Iraq, in 1991 and again in 2002.

Ideology vs Seniority

In 2012, when the top Democratic Party slot on the House Appropriations Committee came open, seniority alone would have made Kaptur -- already the longest-serving Democratic woman in House history -- a shoo-in.

But the job went to Rep. Nita Lowey (N.Y.), who had used her connections with donors to help colleagues during a stint leading the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.Lowey also may have benefited in part by hard feelings remaining from the debate over Obamcare in 2009.

Kaptur supported including in the bill language that would bar government subsidies for the purchase health insurance that covered abortions Because the legislation had no Republican support, the abortion-payment issue was an obstacle to passage of President Barack Obama’s signature initiative.

Obama eventually broke the impasse among Democrats by agreeing to sign an executive order that implemented the amendment’s objectives.Three years later, Kaptur sent a letter to colleagues decrying “distortions’’ of her record and pledging to support the party’s positions on abortion policy but couldn’t persuade the Democratic Steering Committee to back her for the ranking member position. “Isn’t that sad? But I think that has more to do with money and what has happened to our party,’' Kaptur said.

Local Issues

Like other members of Congress, Kaptur’s days are spent on a mix of international, national, and local issues.

A constituent, Roger Durbin, once asked Kaptur why he and his fellow World War II veterans didn’t have their own memorial in Washington, D.C.

Kaptur spent the next 17 years working on it. The National World War II Memorial was dedicated in 2004.

Raised on the shores of Lake Erie, she has taken a special interest in the Great Lakes, its water quality and invasive species such as zebra mussels, the barnacle-like scourge of boats and water intake pipes.

Kaptur may be the only person in Washington who owns a necklace made from zebra mussel shells.

With assistance from Madi Alexander

To contact the reporter on this story: James Rowley in Washington at jrowley@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Katherine Rizzo at krizzo@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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