74-year-old Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) is the longest-serving woman in Congress. She says she feels alienated from the party she has represented since 1983. The Toledo born Polish-American, daughter of a union organizer, said in an interview on Tuesday with the Hill that many Democrats in the D.C. elite cannot relate to her mostly blue-collar constituents.
During the interview, she shared the story of a recent conversation she had with a colleague in which she lamented the economic woes of the industrial Mid-West. The colleague's response was to tell her that people should "just leave."
“They just can’t understand,” she told The Hill. “They can’t understand a family that sticks together because that’s what they have. Their loved ones are what they have, their little town, their home, as humble as it is—that’s what they have. Respect it. It was so insensitive.”
Kaptur represents Ohio's Ninth District, which includes Toledo. According to her biography on her official congressional website, her family ran a local grocery store, and "her mother later served on the original organizing committee of a trade union at the Champion Spark Plug factory in Toledo." Having attended the University of Wisconsin (1968) and later completing a Master's degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan, she was the first in her family to graduate from college. She also pursued doctoral studies at MIT in urban planning development finance in 1981. She is the "first woman to Chair the influential House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, which she considers an honor given the Ninth District stretches much of the southern Lake Erie coastline."
She fears that her party is increasingly dominated by the "Democratic coastal elite." A local Toledo paper called The Blade quotes her as saying that the median income for Democrats in blue districts in her state is higher than those in red ones.
“Normally, in the era in which I was raised, Democrats represented those who have less and Republicans represent those who have more. But when you look at the chart it’s like, oh, what am I looking at here?” she said. “This is an economic challenge and it’s been before us for a long time, and we have to muscle up to it." She added, “In the top 25 in the country, in terms of median household income, there’s only one Republican district.”
She points to a chart showing the median household income for all 436 congressional districts shown below:
Kaptur feels that she is a minority in her party now. Democrats disproportionately represent the top half of congressional districts in terms of median income and economic influence. The bottom half mostly chooses Republicans. Her district is 418 out of 436. Five of the seven richest districts are in the San Francisco Bay area—which includes Silicon Valley.
Now the congresswoman struggles to secure a voice for everyday people with kitchen-table issues. In the interview, she avoided criticism of the more progressive voices in her party. However, she was clear about her opinion about the balkanization of the party and its effect on the lives of many Americans. She thinks that dividing into factions only serves to dilute what she sees as Congress's real work—people's ability to provide for their families.
“I think that economics can bind us. I think that when we divide up into too many subgroups, we lose the overarching theme,” she said. “We have so many caucuses in the conference, it is hard to go to every meeting.”
Kaptur endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, but, in general, her focus is a more moderate one, focused on "bread and butter" issues that face average Americans. She wants her colleagues to show greater interest in the economic challenges that face people in the heartland.
An excerpt from an August 2019 Washington Post feature article written about Kaptur seems to capture a woman who is sincerely dedicated to her constituents,
"...the people who know Kaptur say that her commitment to the powerless in her district is what endears her to her constituents. 'She’s beautiful. She doesn’t act like she’s above anybody,' Tyler says. Her staff sees it, too. 'She takes a very personal approach to every aspect of the role,' says Jenny Perrino, 35, Kaptur’s deputy chief of staff in Washington. 'She fights for the underdog consistently … making them feel like she represents them just as much as the CEO that may come into the office.' Colleagues recognize the same doggedness. In an email, Pelosi praised Kaptur as 'a constant, unwavering voice for America’s heartland'.”
Her initiatives have often sought to bridge public and private interests to achieve a goal. She says it's what representatives in congress should be doing consistently. “It’s like raising a family,” she says. “It takes disciplined endurance, and that’s not newsworthy.”
When asked by the Washington Post about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, her response was indicative of a woman who might be seen as old-fashioned. She seems to be singularly focused on the value of hard work and a steadfast commitment to her community's values. Concerning AOC, she said,
“She’s very energetic. It’s exciting to get elected and it’s exciting to get all this notoriety. But in the end, you have to turn your ideas into laws, and that takes a lot of work,” she said. “Maybe there’s another way. Maybe [the new members will] win the lottery, and they’ll be able to do whatever they want. But for people of ordinary means, the answer is to persevere and to immerse yourself in the subject matter of your district and how that relates to others in the country.”