Marin’s eight-term congresswoman speaks about SMART, Nancy Pelosi, Iraq and retirement
Photo by Tim Porter
Before harping on Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain’s, how to say this politely, “advanced years,” best to look closer to home. “I’m 70,” says Marin County’s eight- soon to be nine- term congressperson, Lynn Woolsey, with an engaging youthful smile. “I’ll soon be 71.” (For the record, McCain was born August 29, 1936; Woolsey on November 3, 1937.)
That said, two thoughts come to mind: 1. Never underestimate Lynn Woolsey; hers is a compelling story of a mom of four, once on welfare, who 16 years ago jumped from the Petaluma City Council to the hallowed halls of the U.S. House of Representatives. Her toughest test since came in 2006 when popular Marin Assemblyman Joe Nation challenged her in the Democratic primary. “And I beat him 70 to 30,” she calmly states. Thought 2. Other than being septuagenarians, Senator John McCain and Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey have next to nothing in common.
Woolsey—whose Sixth Congressional District has 650,000 constituents living in all of Marin and most of Sonoma counties — is one of the most progressive, some will say liberal, members of the U.S. Congress. As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, she believes that ending the Iraq war should be just the beginning of a thorough reevaluation of all U.S. national security policies.
Of our 435 Congress members, on October 10, 2002, Woolsey was among the 133 to vote against the use of force in Iraq. Then in January of 2005 she was the first member of either house to call for President Bush to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq. Since that time, she has delivered 282 speeches on the floor of the House demanding an immediate end to the Iraq war. “I have pledged that I will not rest,” she declared last February, “I will not pause, I will not lower my voice, until all American troops are out of Iraq and home safely with their families.”
Along with Congresswomen Maxine Waters (D–L.A.) and Barbara Lee (D–Oakland), Woolsey chairs the 72-member Progressive Congressional Caucus, the largest partisan caucus in Congress. A review of its principles reflects a portion of what Woolsey consistently works for: affordable quality health care; living wage laws; the legalization of gay marriage; campaign finance reform; increased taxes on the wealthy and tax cuts for the poor; and a pullout of all American forces from Iraq.
In addition, Woolsey is chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor, where she advocates for special education programs and greater emphasis on vocational training. Her other involvements include the tightening of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (0SHA) regulations protecting workers and “fixing” the president’s No Child Left Behind program. As for local projects, Congresswoman Woolsey was instrumental in getting federal funding for the huge wetlands project adjacent to the North Marin community of Hamilton; securing $11 million for repairs necessary to bring Fort Baker, south of Sausalito, into the national parks system; obtaining $45 million for widening the section of Highway 101 known as the “Novato Narrows”; and playing a critical role in $25 million being awarded Marin County for a network of hiking and biking paths.
Lynn Woolsey was born in Washington State and moved to the Bay Area in the early 1960s when her then-husband was a San Francisco stockbroker and she was a stay-at-home mom. After 10 years, her husband suffered a mental collapse and left her with three children, all under five years of age. It was then that Woolsey moved to Novato and took a personnel job at an engineering firm but was forced into welfare in order to make ends meet.
In the 1970s, she married the single father of one (the marriage dissolved amicably after 20 years), earned a B.A. degree from USF, started a personnel consulting business, and, by the early 1980s, began involving herself in local politics. In 1992, after serving eight years on the Petaluma City Council, Woolsey defeated a field of 10 seasoned politicians vying for the congressional seat Barbara Boxer was vacating to make a run for the U.S. Senate.
Was a seat in Congress the realization of Woolsey’s lifelong ambition? “Gosh no,” she answers in the patio of her home on a tree-lined Petaluma street where she’s lived, when not in the nation’s capital, for the past 30 years. “When I was vice president of my girls’ club in junior high, did I think someday I’d be a politician? Heavens no! It’s just that when I get interested in something, I tend to get involved. I’m a team player and if there’s a need for leadership, I usually get elected to run it.”
As for retiring after presumably being elected this November for her ninth two-year term in Congress, Woolsey is succinct: “No,” she answers, then adds: “My health is good and I have more energy than 99 percent of the people living on the earth.” Next, comes insight into Lynn Woolsey’s many successes: “Let me add that I have a very positive energy—I always have and I always will.”
Presently, what Marin-specific projects are you working on?
Each part of the Sixth District has its specific needs; an example would be the Ross Valley, where it’s certainly important that the flood control project gets finished—and in a thoughtful way. So far, it seems like the Army Corps of Engineers is working well with the community. Then there’s a good chance that this year we’ll get the Cordell Banks National Marine Sanctuary extended from northern Marin clear up to Mendocino County.
Also, in the Point Reyes National Seashore, I’ve asked that management find as humane a way as possible to eliminate the nonnative deer. I’ve signed a letter with my Bay Area colleagues requesting that ways other than just shooting them be found. So far, I think that’s happening.
As a congresswoman, how do you know you’re representing your Marin constituents?
Lucky me, I get to vote my conscience, which is mostly the conscience of the great majority of the people living in my district. How do I know? First of all, every two years for the past 16 years I’ve run for re-election—and won. The voters in my district realize when a leader in Congress isn’t expressing their thoughts and they let me know. I get a thousand or more communications every week; sometimes it’s a thousand a day. It’s mostly e-mails now, but any call, letter, postcard or e-mail is effective in conveying thoughts. Most of the time, I’d say ten to one, it’s what I would have voted anyway.
Is there another project you’d like to discuss with Marin County?
I’m a strong supporter of the SMART rail initiative. I think it’s critical we get as many cars off the road as quickly as possible. We have only one north-south route through this district and — even with “Novato Narrows” expansion and completing San Rafael’s “Gap Closure”— it’s reached its capacity. We must take advantage of the railroad right-of-way we already own. I think this time we will, especially with gas approaching five dollars a gallon. But it’s going to be up to Marin to make it happen — in 2006, we lost by just a few votes.
Your colleague Speaker Nancy Pelosi is being challenged by your antiwar ally Cindy Sheehan. Whom are you supporting? And how do you think Madame Speaker is doing?
No, I won’t be supporting Cindy Sheehan in her challenge against Nancy Pelosi. And yes, I wanted my House leadership to be bolder. Once we were in the majority, we had to remember we got elected to get us out of Iraq. However, we had to be bold from day one—and we weren’t. I’m not criticizing Speaker Pelosi; I’m criticizing all of us. I am part of it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have Nancy’s job for anything. I can’t imagine the stress and anxiety. It’s a horrible job, yet she wears it beautifully. As for me, I don’t want to be compromising. I want to be bold. I wanted us out of Iraq and we should have been. I think if we’d been leading boldly from the start, we would be out of there now. As for the impeachment of Bush and Cheney, there was a feeling that it would have sucked all the oxygen out of everything else we wanted to do. I didn’t agree. Once we were in the majority, I signed on to the impeachment. But it didn’t happen. In hindsight, however, we didn’t accomplish that much anyway. So maybe we should have gone forward with the impeachment.
You supported Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama; now Obama is advocating offshore drilling and sending more U.S. troops into Afghanistan. Any comments?
First of all, because I supported Clinton doesn’t mean I opposed Obama. As for his recent stances, I’m sure that if he pleased the people in the Sixth District 100 percent of the time, he’d never get elected. He’d be considered way too progressive. So maybe he is taking these stances to get votes. But rest assured, the Woolsey-Waters-Lee “Triad,” the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will hold his feet to the fire. We’re not going to say, “Oh well, he wants to go into Afghanistan now.” There will be some strength in bringing him back to his roots, because that’s why people love him—because of the positive pictures he paints. We’ll help him remember that.
Now the question is, will he win? I sure hope so. Not just for America, but the entire world depends on his winning. Otherwise, we’ll just be going back to where we are now—self-destructing.
Why does our country seem to be, as you say, “self-destructing”?
A lot of America is not educated enough to analyze and evaluate what’s good for them. They seem to make quick decisions based on personalities and sound bites. Now that’s not true for the Sixth Congressional District. We must realize that, with few exceptions, we’re different from the rest of the county; the exceptions being New York, Chicago, California and possibly Florida. We are well educated, absolutely involved, and able to analyze and question. A lot of citizens can’t, or won’t, do that. They can’t because we’ve dumbed down our education. I don’t care if people don’t think exactly like I, or residents of the Sixth District, do. I just want them to think, to analyze, and to question. And you know if you do, you usually come up on the humane side of the issue.
Let’s close with any regrets you have and your proudest accomplishment to date.
Regrets? As far as actual issues, I have no regrets. Oh sure, I wish I’d been more eloquent in my speaking; maybe less confrontational. But you learn as you go along. As for an accomplishment, it’s being the first person to ask the president—and having a vote on the floor of the House—to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. That was very unpopular in many parts of the country. Then pulling together the “out-of-Iraq” coalition and that now we have 91 members of Congress who’ve signed a letter stating no more funding for Iraq except to bring our troops home.
And please let me say that if the rest of America followed the sensibilities of those in the Sixth Congressional District, we’d have a much different country.