Washington — Californian Lois Capps was a congressman’s wife and new to Washington some years ago when she decided to attend a National Cancer Institute briefing. At the briefing, Capps was struck by one animated, impassioned speaker.
It was Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, describing her experience with ovarian cancer and the importance of cancer research.
“I was very impressed,” said Capps, a former nurse. “She knew what she was talking about, and she was committed.” Capps, who was elected to Congress in 1998 after her husband Walter died of a heart attack, is now one of DeLauro’s friends.
“She is passionate about what she believes in,” Capps said. “She showed me what a woman in Congress can do.”
DeLauro, 69, has amassed a great deal of clout in her 22 years in Congress, forging important relationships and positioning herself as a leading champion of the Democratic agenda.
With the retirement of independent Sen. Joe Lieberman at the end of the year, DeLauro will have the most seniority in the Connecticut congressional delegation. Her stature and influence in Washington could be more important than ever to Connecticut and her district, especially if the House returns to Democratic control in the November elections.
She is known for her take-no-prisoners style when it comes to issues close to her heart — women’s health and pay equity, food safety and more recently, the need for an infrastructure bank that would help repair the nation’s roads and bridges.
DeLauro also has tried for years to climb the Democratic leadership ladder.
Her name comes up from time to time in discussions about possible successors to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. That would make DeLauro one of the most powerful women in Washington.
“That may be down the road, but it’s a real possibility,” said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. “She is certainly well-regarded by her Democratic colleagues.”
More likely DeLauro would go for another position, which could put her in competition with Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, who also has ambitions.
DeLauro said she doesn’t know what she’ll do, but hasn’t ruled anything out.
“If the opportunity presents itself, you take the opening,” she said in a recent interview.
She has run twice for chairman of the Democratic Caucus, a position now held by Larson, and lost by painfully slim margins including, once, by one vote.
“Politics is about moments in time,” she said.
One of the most liberal members in Congress, DeLauro is often a colorful blur as she rushes through the corridors of Congress in unique and sometimes outlandish outfits.
“She is an energizer bunny with an enormous amount of passion,” Ornstein said.
Her mystique and wardrobe inspired the creation of a complimentary, if obscene, website, “Rosa DeLauro is a f—ing hipster.”
Larson said Dodd once glanced at DeLauro and was prompted by her colorful garb to tell her “you look like a Swiss guard.”
“She’s a warrior, a princess warrior,” Larson said. “If there’s anyone you want in the trenches with you, it’s Rosa DeLauro.”
Food stamps, food safety
Her position in the Democratic hierarchy — she’s co-chair of the party’s House steering committee — requires her to balance national priorities with local needs.
She watches out for the state’s defense industry and promotes local projects — like a bid for national heritage status for the Naugatuck River Valley. But there have been grumblings from time to time that DeLauro cares more about national issues than local concerns.
DeLauro says the greatest achievements on Capitol Hill involve helping the poor and powerless, an attitude born of her days as a community organizer and as a daughter of champions of social welfare.
As a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, DeLauro pushed for a huge increase in the food stamp benefits.
“People told me ‘you can’t get more than $4 billion for food stamps.’ I got $20 billion,”
Another victory was Johanna’s Law. Introduced in the House by DeLauro, named after a woman who died of ovarian cancer and signed into law in 2007, it directs the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct an awareness campaign about the signs and symptoms of gynecologic cancers.
She suffered a tough defeat when the Senate, by a single vote, rejected the Paycheck Fairness Act, which DeLauro had marshaled through the House. The legislation would have strengthened the Equal Pay Act and ensured that women would be paid equally with men for their work.
“Women are still paid about 77 cents on the dollar,” DeLauro said.
She’s known in Congress as a leader in the push for greater food safety, and has promoted a larger role for the Food and Drug Administration in the policing of the nation’s food supply. In 2010, DeLauro helped win support for the 2010 Food Safety Modernization Act, which extended the FDA’s reach.
But now, she said, the FDA has a “blurred mission” and has introduced a bill that would establish a new federal agency that focuses solely on food safety.
She’s dismayed the restaurant industry with the MEAL Act (Menu Education and Labeling), which would require restaurants with more than 20 locations to post basic nutritional information — including calorie counts — on their menus. The new labeling requirement is part of the Affordable Care Act and will be enacted soon.
‘Old school New Haven Democrat’
DeLauro said she never planned to go into politics. But with a family background like hers, that’s hard to believe. Both her parents sat on New Haven’s board of aldermen, her mother Luisa DeLauro set a record by serving for 35 years.
“I grew up in a household that was immersed in public policy,” DeLauro said. “Politics was a part of our lives. Our kitchen table was a place where anyone who had a problem could sit.”
She campaigned door-to-door with her father. When she worked for city hall, she often coordinated with her mother on issues.
“For me politics is all about advocacy, that’s what I learned at home,” she said.
Posted on the wall of her Capitol Hill office, DeLauro has something her mother wrote in a newsletter in 1930 when she served as the recording secretary of the local Democratic Party.
“We are not living in the Middle Ages when a woman’s part in life was merely to serve her master in her home, but we have gradually taken our place in every phase of human endeavor, and even in the here-to-fore stronghold of the male sex: politics,” Luisa DeLauro wrote. “I have noticed that the girls, unlike the men, are timid in asserting themselves, and many a good idea is lost, having been suppressed by its creator. Come on girls, let’s make ourselves heard.”
DeLauro was the first woman to run a statewide campaign in Connecticut — for Chris Dodd during his first bid for the Senate in 1980. She then served as the senator’s chief of staff. She was also the first director of Emily’s List, a fundraising group for pro-choice women candidates.
“She’s an old school New Haven Democrat,” said Rich Hanley, director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University. “New Haven is a tough town, and politics are played for real.”
Because her district contains both “elite, wine-sipping Democrats” in the academic society created by Yale University and Quinnipiac, as well as working-class, ethnic Democrats, DeLauro has to appeal to both “town and gown,” Hanley said.
“She appeals to the ‘gown’ with her ideas, but she understands that ideas are nothing if they are not backed by brawn,” he said.
DeLauro’s ideas come a mile a minute. Some of them are incubated at her popular policy dinners, held several times a month at the Capitol Hill townhouse she shares with her husband, Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg.
The catered affairs feature a celebrity or expert in a field, including top economists or journalists. It’s an open invitation to House Democrats — but no Republicans are allowed.
“They are lively, interesting policy discussions,” said Ornstein, who’s been asked to speak a few times.
Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius was the honored guest last week.
“It’s gotten to the point where my colleagues ask me ‘who is on tonight?’” DeLauro said.
She’s been criticized, however, for paying for these affairs with money from her leadership PAC, the Committee for a Democratic Future.
Leadership PACs are usually used to win influence over other lawmakers through contributions to their campaigns, But DeLauro has used most of the money on catering bills that totaled more than $138,000 for the past three years.
Her high-power gatherings are perhaps more effective than campaign contributions in helping DeLauro strengthen her position among House Democrats.
“But it’s not just a naked plan to gain influence,” Ornstein said. “The main reason for them is that they broaden the horizons of her colleagues.”
Still, for DeLauro, politics is all about relationships.
When she came to Congress, she wanted to sit on a committee with authority over the issues she most cared about.
“But I took the best advice I ever got from Chris Dodd, who told me ‘Don’t seek out a committee where everybody is like you,’” the lawmaker said.
She asked, instead, for a seat on the agriculture panel of the House Appropriations Committee.
“I got to make a lot of relationships with members from rural areas of the country,” DeLauro said. (Politics) is all about relationships. That’s how you develop clout.”
Her leadership post also gives her clout and the ability to act as Pelosi’s “enforcer” by withholding plum committee assignments from uncooperative Democrats.
DeLauro also commands respect as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee.
The Pelosi connection
She also has important friends.
Pelosi traveled with DeLauro to Afghanistan. The women also paired up to travel to perhaps a more dangerous place — at least politically — the 3rd District when DeLauro’s constituents were up in arms because the congresswoman was vacationing in Italy as Hurricane Irene slammed into the state.
It was Pelosi who persuaded an ambivalent DeLauro to run for Congress when the 3rd District incumbent, Bruce Morrison, ran for governor in 1990.
“I wanted more women in Congress so I encouraged her to run,” Pelosi said.
DeLauro said she made the decision to run for office “not knowing if this was the right thing to do.” But, “It was the best decision I ever made,” she said.
Since that first tough election, DeLauro has won re-election easily.
Pelosi calls her relationship with DeLauro a “sisterhood.”
“Both of us value our Catholic faith and our Italian-American heritage,” she said.
She said she’s bothered when people see DeLauro simply as a hardworking member of Congress.
“She’s a strategic thinker,” Pelosi said. “That separates her from other people.”