Skip to comments.The Exit Interview
Posted on 12/13/2012 11:33:32 PM PST by ExxonPatrolUs
ON THE EVE OF HER DEPARTURE FROM CONGRESS, WE ASK LYNN WOOLSEY ABOUT HER 20 YEARS AS ONE OF THE MOST LIBERAL MEMBERS OF THE U.S. CONGRESS, AND HER ROLE AS LIGHTNING ROD FOR RIGHT-WING CRITICS...
"My colleagues say, 'You know Lynn Woolsey--she believes in a perfect world!' I say, if we don't believe in a perfect world, and don't strive to attain it, we won't get close to a world that's safe for our children and our grandchildren," Lynn Woolsey says incredulously. She's sitting in an unused conference room at the Marin Civic Center, lit only by the dim morning sun, following a commendation ceremony by the Board of Supervisors and emotional testimonials from more than a dozen adoring local supporters. "So, yeah, I believe we should strive for a perfect world."
A flash of defiance lights her eyes as she speaks. It's the same spark this plainspoken Petaluma politico has shown over and again on the floor of the House of Representatives, where she's spent 10 terms fighting for families, public education, the environment and world peace for three-quarters of a million constituents living in one of the most liberal congressional districts in the nation.
For this outspoken Democratic legislator, whose recently redrawn 6th Congressional District has included all of Marin and most of Sonoma counties, these issues, particularly those concerning women, children and families, are far from rhetorical--they're personal. As one of only two former welfare mothers to serve in the U.S. Congress, Woolsey has brought her lack of pretension to a body known for the art of pandering--a legislature that gets single-digit approval ratings from voters. On Nov. 6, state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, a Democrat backed by Woolsey, easily won the seat in the new 2nd Congressional District and will take her place in January when the 113th Congress convenes. "This district is in very good shape with Jared Huffman as my successor," she says. "He's going to be good. And because of the way the borders of the district got so screwed up with redistricting, it's taking two men to fill my shoes. "They love it when I tell them that," she adds with a sly laugh.
Dressed in a charcoal-gray business suit, light-blue cotton blouse and black flats, her shoulder-length hair more salt than pepper, the 75-year-old Seattle native and former Petaluma vice-mayor sat down recently with the Sun to reflect on her career in national politics. She was elected to Congress in 1992, succeeding Barbara Boxer (who won a U.S. Senate seat that year), defeating longtime moderate Republican Bill Filante, of Greenbrae, who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Her election to the House came in the Year of the Woman, in which a record-breaking 24 women won seats for the first time in Congress and the number of women in the Senate tripled. Since then, she has served on the Committee on Education and the Workforce and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
During her tenure, Woolsey has led the opposition to the wars; fought for a special-education provision for the No Child Left Behind Act; backed repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that discriminated against gays in the military; helped secure a child development block grant; lobbied repeatedly to expand species protection and ban oil drilling in the area around the National Marine sanctuaries off the coast of Marin and Sonoma counties; and helped to obtain federal funding for a new marine mammal center, Highway 101 upgrades, renovation of Golden Rate National Recreation Area facilities, bike lanes, local flood control, the Bolinas Lagoon restoration project, and a $16 million renovation of the San Francisco Bay Model in Sausalito, to name a few. As co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, in 2002, she introduced a resolution backed by 132 other members of Congress voting against authorizing the invasion of Iraq. Three years later, she became the first member of Congress to call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq. "If she hadn't started [opposing the war in Iraq] when she did, we wouldn't be this close to bringing the final 45,000 troops home," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, said in 2011 when Woolsey announced her plans to retire. Woolsey's opposition to the war hasn't dimmed: On Nov. 14, on the floor of Congress, she called for an accelerated withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Despite all the talk of her approaching retirement, or as she puts it, a chance to "sit down and be calm," Woolsey has spent her last days in office also fighting to save many of the social programs she has championed during the past 20 years, programs threatened by proposed Republican budget cuts as part of the negotiations between President Barack Obama and the Republican-controlled House leadership as they try to avert the so-called fiscal cliff, the convergence of automatic tax hikes and spending reductions.
Her tenure, at times, has been controversial. Her early support of Indian gaming has drawn the ire of North Bay residents opposed to a Rohnert Park casino and hotel complex planned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and Station Casinos of Las Vegas. In 2009, Woolsey was arrested for trespassing outside the Sudanese embassy in Washington, D.C., along with four other members of Congress, protesting that country's genocidal policies in Darfur. In 2006, she gave a guest pass to President George Bush's State of the Union address to anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, a Blue Star mother who was arrested at the event for wearing a political T-shirt that read "2,245 Dead--How Many More?" In 2003, Woolsey apologized for writing on congressional stationery a letter of support for accused rapist Stewart Pearson asking a judge to show leniency in the case--Pearson, the son of a Woolsey aide, was subsequently convicted. And numerous conservative and far-right bloggers have routinely portrayed Woolsey as anti-business, a "pinko" and a traitor who has sullied the honor of U.S. troops killed in action.
But the consensus among county officials, and those loyal supporters who gathered Oct. 23 to watch the Board of Supervisors present a resolution praising her work, is that Woolsey has served her district well, remaining steadfast in her core beliefs during her years on Capitol Hill, where representatives routinely put politics above principles.
"Thank you for standing your moral ground," West Marin Supervisor Steve Kinsey told Woolsey at the presentation ceremony. He then jokingly likened Woolsey's intense workload and support of local water projects to Rudyard Kipling's tale of a humble water bearer: "You've carried more water than Gunga Din!"
You were a single mom, a successful human resources consultant and a college instructor [at the College of Marin and Dominican University]. What led you to seek a seat on the Petaluma City Council in 1984? In Petaluma, I thought there was a need around land-use issues. If there's a need then I get involved. I don't have to be the leader--I'm a great team member if the leadership is getting the job done. But I don't hesitate to step up.
Who were your role models at the time?
It was just me. That's who Lynn Woolsey is. I was the leader of my neighborhood "gang" growing up in Seattle, Washington. I was the youngest kid in that group of friends, but I was the one who organized all the games. I'm a leader.
You had served on the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women and have had a longstanding interest in family issues. What part did that advocacy play in your decision to run for Congress?
I ran for Congress because I wanted to see more emphasis on our children's public education. The federal government is just 10 percent of what is spent on public education, but I felt it could do more and do a better job.
What challenges did you encounter when you first entered Congress?
First of all, I learned on the city council that when you're the advocate for something then you only have to look at one side of the issue. It's easy to go in front of the council and wave your hands in the air and say, "I want it this way!" But once you're elected and represent a body you have to look at all sides of every issue. Once I was elected to the House, I petitioned for a position, and was elected [by Congress] to the Education Committee. Nobody believed it at the time when I did it, but I said, "This is the committee I came here to serve on and that I want to stay on." I mean, Education isn't one of the "money" committees. Twenty years later, I'm still on that committee, even though I had a chance eight years ago to advance to the [more powerful] Appropriations Committee. I withdrew my name because I knew that Lynn Woolsey wants to make policy.
During the past 20 years, education has become a hot-button issue, yet public education has faltered. We have not reauthorized No Child Left Behind because the leadership on both sides is too chicken, even though the Democrats controlled the House from 2008-2010. And, of course, the Senate blocked progress and we didn't have total buy-in from the White House. It's frustrating. The frustrating thing about being a member of the House is that things...take...forever! There's no majority among the members of Congress to show the political will to fund it.
Yet No Child Left Behind remains unpopular. In terms of No Child Left Behind, it was a mistake to vote for it and almost immediately I wished I hadn't--that's one of maybe three or four big votes I wish I hadn't made. But Teddy Kennedy and others supported it--we didn't know that most of the funding would be taken out of it. It wasn't 100 percent bad, but it's clear that certain populations in almost every congressional district in this country are underserved. What are some of the prouder moments during your time on the Education Committee?
Well, Bill Clinton signed into law my bill to create pilot breakfast programs at six school districts around the country, so we could show the difference between a student body that eats breakfast and those that don't. We knew what the answer was, but we had to scientifically prove it. Indeed, it was shown that attendance was better, students learn better, they test better and they're better citizens when they're at school when they're not hungry. So we proved it, but it was decided that Congress couldn't afford to fund [an expanded breakfast program].
What part of your tenure overall did you find most inspiring?
I loved every minute of every day of my job. I realized that it was a big deal to represent almost 800,000 constituents and to have a voice--one of 535 people, counting the Senate--and to make a difference. People ask, "What were your surprises?" And there were surprises. When I first got elected, I was surprised to find out how polite everyone in Congress is, no matter what, and how they laugh together and treat one another with dignity. That's my positive surprise. And the flip side...?
My negative surprise was that Congress had the most screwed-up schedule. I don't know how anybody who has a family on another side of the country dealt with it, because we never knew when we were going to be out or how late our votes would be. That was under the Democrats. Fast-forward 20 years. There is very little camaraderie. I mean, the Republicans will smile at you when you say, I've got this bipartisan bill to introduce honoring the classified staff at schools, for example--the office workers and the school nurses and such. I'd ask the Republican chairman [John Kline, R-Minn.] if we could put it up for a vote to show that we can agree on something and he said, No. There's simply no camaraderie. But now the schedule is wonderful. If they say we're out on Thursday, we're out on Thursday. You can count on it. Public approval rating for Congress has dropped to its lowest point ever--just 8 percent of Americans think their representatives are doing a good job. What are your thoughts on that?
Of course, moving the boundaries of the debate is a clever political move on the part of the GOP. Sure, and that gets down to the lack of public education and the fact that many people in this country don't know how to evaluate politics and they haven't been taught to question [authority] and look at what's in their own best interest. We're dumbing down our country. That disintegration of public civility certainly reared its ugly head at the public hearings you held on the Affordable Health Care Act [groups of health-care opponents showed up at public hearings across the country in order to shout down congressional representatives and stifle the forums].
Sure, but that was not your typical meeting in the 6th Congressional District. We knew it was going to be horrendous. And we knew that a lot of those who were there were not from our district.
You continue to be an advocate for a more progressive form of single-payer health-care. What do you think of the process that resulted in Obamacare? It was a step in the right direction. The progressives in the House gave up on pushing for a single-payer plan because we knew it was a non-starter. And I was a leader behind our decision to put all of our progressive energy behind a robust version of the public option. That was a way to ensure there would be competition among insurance companies and some mechanism to control the cost of premiums. [Editor's note: The public option as passed by Congress would offer federally funded insurance, but at a higher rate than is available through private insurance companies.] But the Senate dropped it and the president didn't want it at all. Our constituents came through the office and said, "Tell Lynn to support the president's bill. Don't be stubborn and don't hold out." Let's talk about the wars. Conservative Republican blogger Nancy Morgan, writing on the far-right website The American Thinker, has called you "a national embarrassment" for your opposition to the Iraq War, and your statement that "our current Afghanistan policy is on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of moral decency...and the wrong side of public opinion." First of all, I represent a largely anti-war district. Secondly, that's who I am in my heart and soul. I knew the Iraq War was wrong. I was not the least bit hesitant to speak out and to be part of the anti-war movement. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters and I started the Out of Iraq Caucus--we were known as the triad [laughs]. We really made an impression. I introduced the first piece of legislation telling the president to get us out of there. Some of my most ardent anti-war supporters, though not [Rep. Maxine] Waters or [Rep. Barbara] Lee, came up to me and said, "Lynn, don't ask for a vote on this. The Republicans just put it on the floor to embarrass us." I said, "You might be right, but if I'm the only person in Congress to vote for this I will not be embarrassed." We ended getting 133 votes, including six or eight Republicans. That was a sign to other representatives that it was all right to stand up and speak truth to power and that they were going to be supported in their districts. If you lead, people do follow. Now the wars are winding down, and the economy is in recovery. Why leave the job now?
I'm a person whose timing has worked for her. Actually, I thought I'd be in Congress for 10 years. And then all of a sudden, zip, it's 20. I'm 75 years old. And I've gotten on an airplane every week that we're in session on a Monday or Tuesday morning and fly back on a Thursday or Friday afternoon. Week after week after week. And I'm tired of doing that. It doesn't work for my body and it doesn't work for my soul. During the last Congress, the 111th Congress, I toyed with the notion that that should be my last term. But Jared Huffman hadn't termed out in the state Legislature yet. And I wasn't 100 percent sure about that decision. So I ran and got re-elected knowing that would be my last term. [House minority leader Rep.] Nancy Pelosi asked me, "When did you know?" And I said I knew when I walked backed into Congress and said to myself, "I really wish I hadn't done it this time." I felt like, I don't know why I'm here--I don't want to be here. I didn't stop working--we worked our hearts out these last two years. But I just knew it was time. I was sick and tired of money and politics. I mean, it's going to ruin our democracy if we don't do something [about campaign finance reform]. And I gave lots of notice. You're retiring from politics but it sounds as though you plan to stay quite active.
Oh, I am going to retire. If Lynn Woolsey doesn't learn to sit down and be calm in what I consider to be the last quarter of her life, she'll be in trouble. I want to enjoy my life without all the spin. I mean, I've raised four kids and was a working mom and active in my community. I get to sit down.
Still, you're known as a restless soul. My grandfather used to pay me 5 cents for every minute I could sit still. I never earned a nickel on that bargain. Never. I want to learn to sit still.
It doesn't sound as if you have plans to sit in a rocker. You're president of the Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group Americans for Democratic Action and a CARE adviser. I was an executive at Harris Digital Telephones in Marin, working for Don Green for 10 years, before starting my own human resources consulting firm. One time, and I'll never forget this, Don said to me, "You know, it would be so much easier if every time you came down the hall to my office you weren't on a white horse." He said, "You're always going for the next thing. You never stop and reflect on what you've just accomplished." He was right. He was true. But my position always is, "OK, we did it, let's go--what's next?"
Several of the supporters at the supervisors' presentation mentioned that you had inspired them to become more active in local politics and social causes. That was nice. Hearing those comments, I felt like, gosh, I should hang around and work to really earn that respect. It's clear, though, timing-wise, that I'm leaving at the top of my game. Those compliments really mean a lot to me.
What would you like 6th District constituents to know about your accomplishments?
You know what? I think they know. People come up to me on the street, people I've never met, and say, Thank you for all you've done for women and children and education. Or thank you for working for peace. I mean, that's what I went to Congress for in the first place. I don't think you could ask for anything better than that.
What is it that many people from this area have such a strange view of how the world works? They seem to think that government MUST be Mother, Father, Protector, and Savior to EVERYONE. Is this taught? Who is doing the teaching? Doesn’t anyone just want to succeed (or fail)on their own? I’m 60 years old and for my whole life, every intrusion in my life by the government has bothered me. Why do others welcome it, nay, demand it from their elected representatives?
They certainly have a nerve talking about “making a perfect world” when all congress has done is overspend to the point that we are going under, our children are doomed and America is bankrupt thanks to the unending waste, fraud, regulations, and spending they have stuffed down our throats. It is perfect alright, perfectly horrible.
I used to be one of her constituents and I used to bother to write her and voice my opinion. And she ansewered every one with a form letter that said “my constituents believe” and I’d think, I’M on of your people too, what about me? But she wasted lots of stamps and paper writing to me and it never varried. She wasn’t open to anyone’s opinion but her own.
Of course, the basic Marxist tenet is there is heaven on Earth if socialism rules.
It is the evil capitalists who sucker the masses into accepting slavery of their labor in exchange for the utopian promises of heaven after death.
"Workers of the World Unite. Forward. Demand heaven on Earth. There is plenty for everyone even if you have to take it.' Better yet, learn how to vote to take it!!!
Democrats actually believe that human secularism, and maximum governmental control is “fighting for families”.
What a delusional, evil person. She paved the road to hades with her stupid opinions.
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