TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — When the new Congress convenes on Tuesday, Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur will become the longest-serving woman in its history. Yet after 40, she sometimes feels like an outsider.
Not because she is a woman or because she is now part of the minority party in the House. It’s that she’s from Central America and represents a neighborhood full of working-class people — a place and people many colleagues have forgotten about, Kaptur said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It’s a burden I’ve carried all my career. It’s a problem in both parties because leadership tends to come from the coasts and we here in the great center of the country are not well understood,” she said.
First elected to Congress in 1982, Kaptur will set the mark for the longest term for a woman in the House or Senate, surpassing former Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland who retired in late 2017.
Kaptur’s blue collar roots come naturally. His mother was a union organizer at a spark plug factory in Toledo and his father ran a local grocery store. Kaptur, 76, lives alone in the modest one-story house where she grew up.
She has clashed with a string of bipartisan presidents over trade deals she blames for devastating her state’s manufacturing economy. Her opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was one of the reasons Ross Perot offered her a place as Vice Presidential Vice President in 1996. She turned it down, saying she wanted to stay in Congress.
Kaptur said the impact of NAFTA and the way it wiped out many farmers in Mexico can be seen today in the overwhelming influx of migrants across the US southern border.
“When you’re hungry and you have nothing left, you’re desperate,” she said. “We have a real problem south of our border. It’s like we don’t face it, don’t understand the causality of why it happens.
Kaptur is perhaps best known for introducing legislation to build the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington. “A lot of people won closure at this memorial. For many of our vets, this was their last call,” she said.
The idea came from a postman who asked him during a fry in 1987 to explain why there was no memorial in the capital. It was an effort that lasted 17 years.
“It’s a reality check on Congress about how long it takes to pass something. People keep talking about term limits. If you’re for term limits, you really don’t understand how big the country is and how long it takes to do something big,” she said.
Never much of a fundraiser and always ready to challenge party leaders, Kaptur serves on the powerful House Appropriations Committee, but she has never risen to senior positions in Congress.
Kaptur challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2002 for Democratic House leader and clashed with her at times during her two terms as House Speaker.
Pelosi called Kaptur “a constant, unwavering voice for America’s heart” in 2018 after she became the longest-serving woman in House history.
Kaptur and the Central American Democrats lamented being ignored by their own party in favor of those in congressional districts along the coasts and wealthy parts of the country. Following the midterm elections in November, House Democrats selected a new slate of leaders, with the top five coming from New York, California, Massachusetts and South Carolina.
To further illustrate his point, Kaptur brought a chart showing the median household incomes for each congressional district. Democrats represented 40 of the nation’s 50 wealthiest districts.
Kaptur isn’t the only Midwestern Democrat wanting to make sure the party doesn’t forget states like Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin that have been vital to national elections.
Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who was recently passed over by her fellow Democrats for a leadership position, wants to bring Midwesterners together in her party to make sure their voices are heard by forming the “Heartland Caucus.” Her husband, John Dingell, who died in 2019, spent 59 years in the House and is still the longest-serving congressman in US history.
Kaptur said Congress and the nation must figure out how to reinvest and create growth in places that have been squeezed out by the loss of manufacturing.
Too many of his colleagues don’t understand this and are out of touch with those who are struggling, Kaptur said.
“I’m a Democrat because we care about workers. We care about what happens to people when work has value. And if we don’t pay attention to meaningful work, we’re going to see a loss of work ethic in this country,” she said.
When Kaptur arrived in Washington, she was one of 23 congresswomen. There will be a record 149 women in the new Congress, but that still represents less than 30% of all seats.
Kaptur said she was proud of the women she served with and how much more diverse Congress is in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. But she added that she did not enter politics because she was a woman. “I always say that I presented myself as a working class person,” she said.
“You can see America is becoming more and more representative,” Kaptur said. “But in terms of where people come from, their own life experience; we need to become much more representative of workers in Congress.
John Seewer, l’Associated Press