March 15, 2017
Ozy: A Pragmatic, Poetry-Loving Congresswoman
By Nick Fouriezos
Lisa Blunt Rochester approaches politics much as she tackles writing: with an aim at the broad view but an almost Oprah-esque embrace of the personal. The 55-year-old co-author of Thrive — an account of 34 women who, like her, once journeyed to Shanghai and “redefined success” — says of poetry, one of her favorite mediums: “You can get a whole world into a small amount of space.”
Rochester, in her new, hazelnut-scented Longworth congressional office, is now far from the feel-good and deep in policy-wonk territory. It’s an unlikely move, but the “progressive champion” — so titled by liberal women’s-issues political action committee EMILY’s List president Stephanie Schriock — has her political narrative down pat. Hers is a humble story, almost Chicken Soup for the Soul-worthy, she suggests, taking her from more than a decade out of politics to her new role as Delaware’s first female and first African-American representative to the U.S. House. She’s already been named assistant whip, meaning it’ll be her job to drum up votes and hustle relationships among fellow Dems, “on a deeper level,” she says. It’s a career-builder that could help her “move up the leadership chain,” adds Theodore Davis, a political scientist at the University of Delaware specializing in urban politics: “Her personality, her charisma, is going to work for her. Even though she might be a fierce partisan, she won’t be the type of person you perceive that way.”
But in this political moment, a charm offensive might not be enough. Visitors waiting at Rochester’s office on a recent Friday were greeted by a TIME cover emblazoned: “Do the Democrats Matter?” En masse, it’s a question liberals grapple with in Republican-controlled Washington and with the early presidency of Donald Trump. It’s especially relevant to Rochester, who, helming Delaware’s lone seat, will be advocating her state’s concerns as a caucus of one. She is likable, says Rev. Christopher Bullock, an outspoken activist and pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in Wilmington, but she won’t receive a pass: “She will have to lead — around educational issues, prison issues and issues around women’s concerns and poverty.”
Her stances on those issues? In the past, she’s said she would help pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, a popular bill on the left to keep employers from retaliating against employees who share wage information, and that she would push to create a federal online database making wage information public. Small-business tax credits and high school career-readiness programs are also on the menu. She would continue funding Planned Parenthood and increased access to mammograms and cancer screenings.
Rochester chuckles warmly when asked about relevance. “What is the future of parties,” she wonders, in a world where Trump won and young voters felt the Bern? She’s “conscious of the fact we’re in the minority, but not consumed by it,” she says. Rochester, while acknowledging she’s playing behind the eight-ball, relishes the challenge: “It forces you to be your most creative.” That creativity will manifest itself in her support for the New College Compact, which would let students attend public colleges tuition-free in return for 10 hours a week of work, for instance.
Already, Rochester is proving progressive in policy but moderate in approach. While Georgia Democrat John Lewis, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison and California’s Ted Lieu boycotted Trump’s inauguration, Rochester wished to represent “all of Delaware” rather than just her party. Two weeks later, she was at the Philadelphia airport protesting Trump’s travel ban against seven majority-Muslim countries. So far, Rochester has cosponsored 14 bills, adding her name to efforts from preserving sanctuary cities to reauthorizing funding for historically black colleges, giving legal aid to undocumented immigrants and investigating Russian influence on the 2016 election. She says it was equally as important for her to join the Progressive Caucus as it was to join the pro-job growth New Dems, who support a simplified tax code, skills training and restricting outdated regulation to help jump-start the economy. “I hope people will not paint it as an either/or,” she says.
Rochester often describes how, while at the University of Delaware, she attended a town hall, the first of her two children in her arms, and approached the state congressman, now U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, who suggested the public policy grad student apply for an internship. The political genesis tale is a bit misleading. She wasn’t no one — Rochester’s father is Ted Blunt, a longtime Wilmington City Council president, and her father’s backyard served as “her base” during her election win, says Davis. But Rochester’s work as a caseworker answering constituent complaints revealed a common thread of problem solving, from dealing with social security snafus to helping a disenfranchised voter keep her home.
Today, Rochester sits on the workforce and agriculture committees, important roles with room for bipartisanship but not known as high-profile posts. The latter may have been a political concession to the southern Delaware shorelines, farm country where Rochester underperformed on the ballot, Davis says, and it is odd that a state known for its banking powerhouses no longer has a House voice on the issue. But Rochester speaks excitedly about supporting farmers growing corn and raising broilers for the state’s top industry: “More chickens than people, some say,” she quips.
Even as she faces down the uncertain future of the Democratic Party, Rochester reflects on history. Sitting in her Capitol Hill basement office, beside hallways still filled with furniture from other new arrivals, she unfurls her scarf, sheaths of fabric that are imprinted with the text of a Reconstruction Era document that her great-grandsomething had signed with an X to earn him the right to vote. “I love the idea that there is actual proof that things happened, that things existed,” she says, adding adroitly, “beyond our opinions about those times.”