Charlotte, N.C. — Talking points on women’s issues come easily to Rosa L. DeLauro, the congresswoman, ardent feminist and ovarian cancer survivor from New Haven.
DeLauro, the senior member of the U.S. House delegation from Connecticut, followed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to the podium Tuesday night to talk about pay equity as the Democratic National Convention opened with an appeal to women.
“America’s women still make just 77 cents for every dollar men earn,” DeLauro said. “It’s even tougher for women of color. Those pennies add up to a real difference to middle class families — trying to pay their bills, trying to get ahead, trying to achieve the American dream. And we are making progress.”
But she could have riffed on gender inequity of all stripes, as she’s warmed quickly this week to what Democrats say are the outrages of the Republican plank on abortion and the GOP’s commitment to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which she says would set back the cause of women’s health.
DeLauro is a walking, talking political action figure: Pull a string, and the talking points pour forth in a staccato cadence, accentuated by ring-covered hands that can wave dangerously close to listeners when the conversations are one on one.
“There is not a distinction between her persona and her speaking style,” said former Sen. Chris Dodd, her former boss. “With Rosa, it’s all the same, whether you’re having a private conversation with her or you’re in a room like tonight.”
Unabashedly liberal, it was DeLauro who turned with a fury on Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman when it appeared he would block health-care reform, saying Lieberman should be recalled – an option unavailable to voters in Connecticut.
“She is emotion on display, with a principled, centered focus on people, always leading with her heart,” said U.S. Rep. John B. Larson of East Hartford, a House leader who ranks behind DeLauro in the state delegation.
“We have one rule” about speaking, said Chris Murphy, the young congressman running for U.S. Senate, talking about the state’s all-Democratic delegation of five U.S. House members. “Nobody follows Rosa.”
At age 69, with 22 years in the House, no longer does she have an eye on the Senate, where she worked as a chief of staff from 1980 to 1987 to Dodd, who was forced into retirement in 2008.
Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general with 20 years as a high-profile statewide office-holder, was the consensus nominee to succeed Dodd. This year, with the retirement of Lieberman, she deferred to the 39-year-old Murphy.
“I love what I do,” DeLauro said. “We win the House back and I chair the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health, education. I have seniority. I’m there 22 years. You can make things happen.”
Standing in the spotlight of a national convention, on a blue stage surrounded by a circle of illuminated white stars, it’s hard to remember that she once was a political operative most comfortable behind the curtain.
She twice was a campaign manager and then chief of staff to powerful men, first Mayor Frank Logue in New Haven, then Dodd.
“I always viewed myself in that top spot, next to the person who held elective office,” DeLauro said.
Dodd hired her after a three-hour conversation on a gray, rainy day in 1979 for his first Senate campaign.
She stayed on as his chief of staff for seven years, leaving to run a campaign to end U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan contras, then she helped launch EMILY’s List, a group devoted to encouraging Democratic, pro-choice women to run for Congress.
In 1990, she took her own advice, running for the open seat in the 3rd Congressional District when the incumbent, Bruce Morrison, ran for governor.
“Was I uncertain? Yeah, it was a leap of faith on my part,” DeLauro said.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman chosen by President Obama as the Democratic national chairwoman, said it was DeLauro’s work with EMILY’s List that set a path for her and other young women to run for office.
“I stand on Rosa DeLauro’s shoulders,” Wasserman Schultz told the Connecticut delegates earlier Tuesday.
Marla Romash, whom DeLauro hired out of the University of Connecticut in 1979 to handle press on Dodd’s campaign, said the experience was unforgettable.
“I think I learned more about life and politics from Rosa than anyone else in my life,” said Romash, who later was the press secretary for Vice President Al Gore. “She’s family.”
DeLauro’s first campaign was her only close contest, but she never has lost her sense of competition.
To DeLauro, politics is combat, a fight for important issues in an institution that still matters, regardless of the gridlock that’s settled over Congress like a fever that shows no signs of abating.
Little about her is subtle, not her politics, her speaking style or her sense of fashion or decor. The art in her house is bold, bright and modern, as are the scarves she favors and the earrings and eyeglasses she wears. She was briefly a social-media sensation when someone created a tumblr page called, “Rosa DeLauro is a f****** hipster.”
On Tuesday, she wore a plaid mini-dress to the delegation breakfast.
DeLauro is a second-generation American and second-generation politician, a daughter of Wooster Square who now lives closer to Yale with her husband, pollster Stanley Greenberg. Both her parents were New Haven aldermen.
DeLauro said her father, who was born in Italy, once helped a Yale professor who was researching what happened to workers after the closing of the Candee Rubber Co. in New Haven.
He told her the workers were easily discarded, with little recourse.
“I learned that at home, about what people’s lives are about, from both my parents,” she said. “Advocacy for people is critical. It’s what drives me.”