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Illinois congresswoman brings her frugal style to Washington

The new green-eyed congresswoman from John Anderson's district around Rockford, Ill., is keeping a skeptical eye on old-time Washingtonians. Standing in the middle of a marbled hallway, Lynn Martin points an accusing finger toward the caucus room from which she has just ducked and says, "I have a feeling that you can be overcome by a place like this -- like the people in there."

Their problem, as she sees it, is that they have to live here all year. "The same thing started to happen to me in Springfield [Ill., where she served a full term in the state House of Representatives and a half term in the Senate]. Toward the end of the session, even Im was starting to vote for appropriations -- I'd think, Aw, they need help. Even me!"

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That is not how the lady got her reputation. Known variously as the "ax" or the "sledge," Ms. Martin set out to prove on state appropriations committees that, as she says in her low-key, quick voice, "all bureaucracy doesn't have to exist forever." She even cut hard- to-turn-down items like programs for the deaf and the multiple-handicapped.

The tightly wired congresswoman hopes to apply her incredulity to the US budget. "I'm not overly fond of big government," she says. But after three days of briefings she was starting to come to grips with the fact that she would probably not make the committee appointment she most desires. She whispers its name, "appro, appro, appro" while leaning over and punctuating each pro with a poke to the reporter.

Asked what she expects to do, should she be given the prestigious appointment to the Appropriations Committee, she replies in clipped lingo, "Work. Learn. Learn. Work."

That sums up her political career so far, a drive in the fast lane that has observers speculating on a future US Senate seat for the successful Ms. Martin. A high school teacher of government and economics, she became "interested in my community" and concerned over the Winnebago County Board, which she perceived as "out of touch" and "buried."

So she ran and found herself elected as the Board's Republican spokeswoman. Then she made a discovery. "You know what? The old ducks weren't ignoring the people after all -- they really cared about the community in their own quiet way."

Her term on the County Board was a "learning experience" for her, "sort of selfish, really, though I do think I brought more openness to the community."

From there, she bounced into the Illinois House after a campaign "everybody knew I would lose but me." To move in, she had to move a Democratic incumbent out.

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It was during her term in the Illinois House that she gained her reputation as "frugal -- other people have nastier names for it." She also sponsored a bill she says New York State used as its model for their "Son of Sam" legislation, which makes it illegal for a criminal to profit from books or plays written about his crime.

In her next campaign she unseated another Democrat in the Illinois Senate, where she strode in to play "my usual Machiavellian games" to get her legislation through.

Political writer Jim George of the Rockford Register Star sees this as her greatest strength. "She learned how to play political games early and well," he says in a telephone interview. "She became close acquaintances with the Chicago Democrats, and got them to cosponsor her bills."

She laughs this off, saying, "I'm half-Irish, and so are they [the Chicago Democrats]. I like them -- they tell funny stories."

One of her cosponsors is known more for his political heritage than his funny stories. Richard Daley, son of Chicago's legendary mayor, cosponsored a nursing home bill that Ms. Martin hopes will become a model law for other states.

She is obviously proud of this piece of work -- a work she enjoyed. "I really like state government," she says, draining her ice cubes. "I think it's the government that has the best chance to get its act together."

So why is she leaving it, with her Senate term unfinished? "I had an opportunity to run for the House and wrestle with some things, like the direction of growth in government." She lists, ticking them off on her fingers, "energy, and the relationship of a peaceful country with others nations."

She also sees here new job as an opportunity to work for the "part of my constituency who are women." Although she supports the Equal Rights Amendment and is in favor of keeping abortion legal, she has no specific female legislation to bring before Congress.

"There was a lot of promise given in the 1960s," she says, "and I think the disappointments of the 1970s were accentuated by the enormity of those promises. I think it's dangerous for women's groups to support large, overall programs instead of specific goals."

She has a specific goal in mind. "In a recessive economy, the people hurt the most are minority women. So the best place I could help would be to get it going again. If we're in a recession -- if there are no jobs -- programs don't mean a thing."

And so she has come to Washington, because "I knew if I ignored the opportunity, then I'd never have the right to complain about these things."

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