Recess Isn't Just Playtime for This Rep.
In a single day, Rep. Anne Northup serves pizza, defends budget bill, reads to children.
It's 7:30 a.m. and Rep. Anne Northup (R) of Kentucky, freshman congresswoman, stands in the kitchen of her suburban-Louisville white-clapboard Colonial. The mother of six has already dropped one son off at the bus back to college and sent her youngest off to his high school's opening day.
Now she's going through mail and discussing the day's news, mainly the United Parcel Service strike settlement, with her husband, while trying to get someone out to repair the TV. She has a busy schedule ahead, squeezing precious few personal appointments into a schedule of meetings and appearances that will last 15 hours.
Welcome to congressional "recess." Although members of Congress are out of Washington until after Labor Day, they're rarely off the job. While many - including Representative Northup - will use some of their time away from Capitol Hill for family vacations or official trips, no member can afford to neglect his or her constituents during the break.
The demands on a member's time are nearly overwhelming and come from a variety of individuals and organizations in a district. Northup half jokes that her staff has to divide even 45-minute segments of the day in half in order to fit everyone and everything in. Some appointments involve important businesses or employers in the district, others are issues she is personally interested in. Yet others are simply people that clearly need help from a sympathetic person in power.
Often the three coincide. Northup draws a good deal of her passion on issues from her roles as a wife and mother of an interracial family: Two of her children are adopted. Her economics degree and one-time teaching career come into play as well.
The ability to connect with people she meets, along with a seemingly endless supply of energy, are crucial weapons in Northup's political arsenal - all the more so since she won election last fall by a mere 1,299 votes.
As she does most Wednesdays, Northup participates in a live phone interview with WWKY radio host Stew Williams around 7:40. Today he asks what her biggest frustration is so far. "Washington is so much more political than what I dealt with even in Frankfort [in the state legislature]," she says. "When you're talking with somebody in the other party, you can start to see the wheels turning: 'How will this help us in the next election?' " It's a theme she'll repeat all day - a day full of endless questions.
At 8:20, Northup arrives at Baptist Hospital East to meet with members of the Kentucky Hospital Association. She talks a few minutes about the challenges of reforming health care and the recent budget bill's changes in Medicare and Medicaid. Questions follow: What about the newly authorized provider networks? Why do providers bear the brunt of belt-tightening by Congress? What must states do with the new money for children's health care?
After the hour-long meeting, it's off to a private appointment and then a 10:30 meeting in her office with Sister Anne Rita Mauck - to discuss schools for children diagnosed with learning disabilities.
After the 40-minute discussion, Northup is off to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's Open Hand Kitchen, which she visits every few months to help serve lunch to about 150 poor men and women. Surrounded by turn-of-the-century stained-glass windows, she dishes up pizza and chicken patties at a steam table in the back of a church-sanctuary-cum-dining-hall.
At 12:05 a staff member drives Northup to St. Matthews, a Louisville suburb, where a business association is sponsoring a panel discussion of welfare reform. She cautions that changing people's habits and behavior takes time and makes a pitch for business to help. She fields more questions on topics ranging from illegal immigration to the strength of the economy.
After that ... nothing. An unexpected free hour gives Northup the chance to make a few phone calls, read mail, and talk with staff members at her office. At the end of the hour, Northup departs for Breckinridge Elementary School on the edge of downtown. The school has the highest number of child-abuse victims in the county and is located in one of its most crime-ridden areas. As such, it is one of the first schools in the state to go to a year-round schedule. "We went for the safety of our kids. We wanted them off the streets," principal Ann Long says.
In teacher Tammy Ronau's first-grade class, surrounded by awed children, Northup sits in a small chair and reads aloud the book "Chrysanthemum." The story is part of the school's antiviolence curriculum, which aims to help children learn to cope with their feelings, control impulses, and care about others. A little girl runs up and gives the congresswoman an enthusiastic hug as she leaves the mixed-race classroom.
After an hour at the school, Northup departs for the Louisville Central Community Center, located in the city's traditionally black district. Director Sam Watkins Jr. and the Rev. Geoffrey Ellis of the local NAACP Ministerial Coalition describe public and private efforts to rehabilitate public housing and reinvigorate the neighborhood. They want to bring in new businesses and badly needed services, and create an entrepreneurship center to teach business skills to black youths.
Next year's federal budget is already set, Northup points out, but "If I have any ability to influence [businesses and foundations to help], I want to do that," she says.
Returning home, Northup scarfs down a can of tuna and some cold beets, her first meal since breakfast. After helping her son buy schoolbooks, followed by a private appointment, she rejoins aides to travel to a 7:30 meeting in Middletown with the local chapter of United We Stand, America, Ross Perot's citizens' group. There, Northup repeats her refrain about Washington politics for the 75 or so members of the audience: "There is little discussion of issues across party lines."
Again, more questions. But this time, some are openly hostile: Why did she vote against a Postal Service deal with Japan that would freeze other delivery services (such as UPS, which has its main air hub in here) out of the Japanese market? What is her stance on campaign-finance reform?
That done, Northup, her press secretary, and a reporter now race back downtown for a scheduled 9 p.m. appearance on WHAS Radio's Joe Elliot Show. She defends the bipartisan budget and tax deal: "In the end the choice was in having it vetoed or continuing to negotiate [with President Clinton] and get the best deal we could."
For nearly two hours, callers fire away - their questions running the gamut from Social Security to ValuJet to cutting federal spending.
Northup refuses to be pinned down on whether she'd reelect Newt Gingrich as Speaker if she is reelected. She and Mr. Elliot spend the final minutes debating campaign-finance reform.
The show wraps up at 10:55 p.m., but host and guest continue a lively discussion on campaign financing until Mr. Elliot has to go back on the air again at 11:05. An aide then drives Northup home.
Being a member of Congress, it turns out, is a lot like campaigning, and tomorrow's schedule will be little different. "We're as busy here as we are in Washington," she says.
* Earlier articles in this series ran Nov. 22, Jan. 14, Mar. 28, and June 18.