TOLEDO, Ohio – When the new Congress convenes on Tuesday, Ohio Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur will become the longest-serving woman in its history. Yet after 40 years, she sometimes feels like an outsider.
Not because she’s a woman or now in the minority party in the House. It’s that she’s from Middle America, and represents a district populated by working-class folks — a place and people many colleagues have forgotten, Kaptur said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“This is a burden I’ve carried my entire career. It’s a problem in both parties because the leadership tends to come from the coasts and we here in the big middle of the country are not well understood,” she said.
First elected to Congress in 1982, Kaptur will set the mark for the longest tenure by a woman in the House or Senate, surpassing former Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who retired at the end of 2017.
Kaptur's blue-collar roots come naturally. Her mother was a union organizer at a spark plug factory in Toledo, and her father ran a corner grocery. Kaptur, 76, lives alone in the modest single-story home where she grew up.
She has stood up against a string of presidents from both parties over trade deals that she blames for devastating her state's manufacturing economy. Her opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement was one reason why Ross Perot offered her a spot at being his vice presidential running mate in 1996. She turned him down, saying she wanted to stay in Congress.
Kaptur said the impact from NAFTA and how it wiped out many farmers in Mexico can be seen today in the overwhelming surge of migrants at the southern U.S. 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 as though we’re not dealing with it, that we don’t understand the causality of why this is happening.”
Kaptur is perhaps best known for introducing legislation to build the World War II Memorial on the National Mall in Washington. “Many people have gained closure at that memorial. For many of our vets, it was their last call,” she said.
The idea came from a mail carrier who asked her at a fish fry in 1987 to explain why there was no memorial in the capital. It was an effort that took 17 years to complete.
“That’s a reality check on Congress on 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 great,” she said.
Never much of a fundraiser and always willing to challenge party leaders, Kaptur sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee but she has never ascended to leadership positions in Congress.
Kaptur challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi in 2002 for House Democratic leader and occasionally clashed with her during her two stints as House speaker.
Pelosi called Kaptur a “a constant unwavering voice for America’s heartland” in 2018 after she became the longest-serving woman in House history.
Kaptur and Democrats from Middle America have lamented being passed over by their own party in favor of those from congressional districts along the coasts and wealthy areas of the nation. Following the midterm elections in November, Democrats in the House selected a new slate of leaders with the top five coming from New York, California, Massachusetts and South Carolina.
To further illustrate her point, Kaptur brought along 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 Democrat from the Midwest who wants to make sure the party doesn't forget about states such as Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin that have been vital to national elections.
Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who recently was passed over by fellow Democrats for a leadership post, wants to bring together Midwesterners from 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 member of Congress in U.S. history.
Kaptur said Congress and the nation must figure out how to reinvest and create growth in places that have been hollowed out by the loss of manufacturing.
Too many of her colleagues don't understand this and are disconnected from those who are struggling, Kaptur said.
“I’m a Democrat because we care about working people. We care about what happens to people when work has a value. And if we don’t pay attention to rewarding work, we’re going to find a loss of the work ethic in this country” she said.
When Kaptur arrived in Washington, she was one of 23 women in Congress. There will be a record 149 women in the new Congress, but that still represents less than 30% of all seats.
Kaptur said she’s proud of the women she has served alongside and of how Congress is much more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity and gender. But she added that she didn't enter politics because she's a woman. “I always say I ran as a person from the working class,” she said.
“You can see that 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 working men and women in the Congress.”