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Rep. Marcy Kaptur becomes the longest-serving woman in Congress this week after winning her first competitive race in decades. But she sees her work in Washington as far from over.
“I operate in a different way than many of my colleagues simply because of what I have lived,” said the Ohio Democrat, who was the first in her family to graduate from college and represents the kind of Rust Belt community slipping away from her party.
“So why do I stay? It isn’t just to get a title that she stayed the longest. But to use every ounce of strength I have to try to hammer this message: You’re leaving us out. You’re not seeing us.”
First elected in 1982, Kaptur became the longest-serving woman in the US House of Representatives in 2018. But now she’s breaking the record of former Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a fellow Democrat who retired at the end of 2016 after 40 years in Congress. Throughout that time, Kaptur has urged her party – especially leadership, which has often been dominated by lawmakers from the coasts – to wake up to the plight of “industrial and agricultural America,” not only for the survival of the party, but also for democracy.
In an interview with CNN late last year, Kaptur recalled approaching a “very high-ranking member of the House” and warning that the federal government needed to invest in the middle of the country. “We are going to have political unrest. I even used a stronger word. I said even perhaps fascism,” she said.
That was before the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.
Kaptur won a 21st term in November in a district that was redrawn from heavily Democrat to more Republican, defeating an election denier who was at the Capitol on January 6.
J.R. Majewski has said he went to protest peacefully and left when “it got ugly,” but the House GOP’s campaign arm eventually cut off spending for him in the district after revelations about him misrepresenting his military record. Kaptur, although she faced criticism from some constituents that she’d been in Washington too long, won by 13 points.
“I view myself like the Statue of Freedom on top of the Capitol. It is a woman and she looks east to the rising sun,” said Kaptur, who counts among her proudest achievements the 17-year struggle for the construction of the World War II memorial. It was one of her constituents, a letter carrier from the village of Berkey, who pushed her to introduce legislation for it.
Kaptur left a doctorate program at MIT to run for Congress, having already worked for President Jimmy Carter as a domestic policy adviser. She was one of just 24 women in Congress when she arrived. Today there are 149.
“So that is really consequential progress – in one generation,” Kaptur said of the record number of women serving this year. She wrote a book in 1996 about women in Congress in the 20th century, joking that she’s been too busy to update it.
But having more women in Congress is less important to Kaptur than where the women are from and the kinds of communities they represent.
“As a woman, let me just say, if you come from the part of America where I do – and I don’t just mean geographically, but I mean economically – we still don’t have a majority.”
“What’s the difference between a very rich woman and man in Congress?” asked Kaptur, who lives in the same Toledo house she grew up in. “People like us, we’re there. We’re there. We are radishes in a salad. … But we’re important voices because what we have experienced enlightens the dialogue.”
She fought for years to get a spot on the House Appropriations Committee – eventually going up against Nancy Pelosi. “I was so offended,” Kaptur said, casting it as the “fight of a hardscrabble working-class person” against a former head of the Democratic Party of California.
Kaptur has occasionally been at odds with Pelosi in leadership races – even briefly challenging her for party leader in 2002 – although the two women have recently praised and supported each other. Kaptur’s voting record on abortion has also evolved to be more in line with the national party.
When the Ohio Democrat got to the Appropriations Committee in the early 1990s, she was one of only three women. Democratic then-Rep. Lindy Boggs of Louisiana had to tell her to stand up when addressing the panel.
She’s unsuccessfully sought to lead the committee – losing out to women from more coastal states. But in 2019, she became the first woman to chair the subcommittee on energy and water development and her bill to create the Great Lakes Authority – a federal regional commission to address environmental and economic issues – recently passed as part of the omnibus spending package.
Still, she said, it can be hard to be heard.
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“When you’re not in leadership, you don’t have a seat at the table – maybe you have your subcommittee or your committee, something like that – but it almost is impenetrable,” she said of the institution. “And the American people know it. They feel it and that’s why they’re becoming radical in their political expressions.”
But she credits President Joe Biden for visiting Lorain, a city in Northeast Ohio, last year. “That is unheard of. Joe Biden is trying. He’s in a party that can’t see places like Lorain and Cleveland and Toledo.”
She laments the defeat of Democrat Tim Ryan, whom she backed in last year’s Ohio Senate race, and blames the national party for long ignoring disaffected voters who ultimately backed the Republican nominee.
“So my struggle is unending. And I hope God gives me the years, maybe I can pound some of this sense into the institution, but I don’t know,” Kaptur said.
And then, with a laugh, later added, “I gotta stay as long as Mitch McConnell.”