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Alums in congress Lois Capps and Rick Larsen make their voices heard in the other Washington

By Tom Nugent


Washington, D.C. – Lois Capps ’59 is a registered nurse committed to improving public health who was thrust into politics after the sudden death of her husband. The 67-year-old lawmaker from Santa Barbara, Calif., ran to fill the seat held by her late husband, Walter.

Rick Larsen ’87 started his political career much earlier in life as a Snohomish County (Wash.) Councilman and was elected to Congress at age 35 in 2000. A third-term congressman from Northwest Washington, he’s already well known in the U.S. House of Representatives for his effective, easygoing style.

Capps and Larsen are the only PLU alumni currently serving in Congress. Several PLU alums have been elected to local and state governmental bodies, and Jack Metcalf ’51, was Larsen’s predecessor. Metcalf served six years in Congress after 24 years in the state Legislature.

Their backgrounds and approaches differ, but Capps and Larsen have similarities. They’re both Democrats caught up in the struggles of their minority party. And they both have strong voices, refusing to back down from what they feel is right.

On THE WAR...“We need to support our soldiers there, obviously, but we also need to push this administration more in order to establish some milestones that will let us measure success. “ — RICK LARSEN ’87

Capps, the daughter of a Lutheran minister who was married to a religion professor for 37 years, calls the $2.6 trillion federal budget recently drawn up by the House Budget Committee an “immoral document.” Ask her why, and she won’t mince words.

“I think it’s immoral because of the way it robs from the next generation,” said the feisty, fourth-term Democrat who has garnered great praise from colleagues for her commitment to social issues.

“It makes them pay for tax cuts that will go to the wealthiest among us, and it also will cut up to $20 billion from the Medicaid health care program over the next 10 years. Medicaid helps people who can’t afford to pay for their health care – and these funding cutbacks could eventually force many senior citizens right out of their nursing homes, by depriving them of the money they need to pay for such care.”

Similarly, Larsen didn’t hesitate when he had to make a crucial decision on the floor of the House.

Although he was caught up in a fierce re-election battle – and although his sprawling 2nd District contains U.S. military installations at both Whidbey Island and Everett – he concluded that it would be a mistake to invade Iraq.

So he put his career on the line – and he voted against the Oct. 11, 2002, resolution that authorized the U.S. President to bring down Saddam Hussein. (Capps also voted against the resolution.)

On FAITH...“I really do think I’m a hopeful person, in spite of everything, and I believe that with the hard times comes the faith you need to keep on living – and to keep on doing your best to serve others.” — LOIS CAPPS ’59

Ask Larsen what it was like to put his neck in a political noose by voting against a powerful chief executive only a year after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and he points out that he actually received “very little criticism” for voting his conscience in 2002.

“I voted against that resolution because I was convinced the United States shouldn’t take a ‘go it alone’ approach in Iraq,” Larsen said in a recent interview on Capitol Hill.

Fighting to protect ‘most vulnerable’

For Capps, who spent two decades as a hard-working public school nurse in central California, the road to the U.S. House of Representatives began on a brutally painful afternoon at Washington’s Dulles International Airport.

It was there that her beloved husband – former Democratic Congressman Walter H. Capps – suffered a fatal heart attack in October of 1997.

Only 13 months before his sudden death, the longtime religion and philosophy professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had surprised the political pundits by winning the congressional seat in the state’s 23rd District. Until the Capps upset, the Republicans had maintained an iron grip on this moderate-to-conservative district for nearly 50 years.

Suddenly, Lois Capps was faced with a difficult choice. Should she retire into peaceful obscurity – or should she fight to keep her deceased husband’s hard-won congressional seat in the ranks of the struggling Democratic Party?

“I prayed a lot and I struggled a lot,” she said, “and I finally decided that the best thing I could do was to try and serve my country by running for Walter’s seat.”

In March 1998, Capps narrowly won a special election and headed to the nation’s capital. Since then, she’s been re-elected four times, and most political observers believe she’ll be able to remain in office as long as she wishes.

“The last few years have certainly been difficult at times,” she said with a weary sigh. She also lost her daughter Lisa to illness in 2000. “But I really do think I’m a hopeful person, in spite of everything, and I believe that with the hard times comes the faith you need to keep on living – and to keep on doing your best to serve others.”

Since entering Congress seven years ago, the endlessly energetic Capps (she’s also an accomplished violinist with a master’s degree in theology from Yale) has fought hard to improve health care and education, as a member of both the Budget and Energy/Commerce committees. In recent months, she’s also spent a lot of time trying to fend off what she sees as “a growing threat” to the “safety net” provided by Social Security.

During nearly a decade of fighting for “the vulnerable and the powerless” on Capitol Hill, Capps has drawn support from some powerful allies, such as former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, who described her as “a woman of character, integrity and wonderful citizenship.”

Former President Bill Clinton recently echoed that sentiment, while telling an applauding California audience: “I’ve never known a better human being than this woman, ever!”

Capps, who presented the PLU Commencement address and was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2001, said her nursing education challenged her “to the limit.” She attended PLU in the earlier days of the program, when students trained at a hospital in Portland, Ore.

“Well, that program was pretty tough, let me tell you,” Capps said. “It was so demanding and challenging. I can remember crying myself to sleep at night more than once from sheer exhaustion.”

In spite of the hardships, however, Capps says she’s grateful for the early lessons she learned about facing challenges. She said nursing school can provide “the perfect background” for service-minded students who might someday decide to run for political office.

“I talk to nursing organizations all the time, and I always tell them: ‘Look, the skills you need to be a good nurse are the same skills you need to be an effective member of the House ofRepresentatives,’” she said. “The caring, the decision-making skills and the teamwork required for good nursing – these are precisely the things you need most, in order to do a good job on Capitol Hill. Every time I talk to a group of nurses, I wind up urging them to run for the U.S. Congress!”

Keeping his sense of humor

For Larsen, who jokes that he was admitted to PLU in spite of the fact that he’s a lifelong Methodist, serving in Congress is “a huge responsibility, but that doesn’t mean you have to leave your sense of humor at the door.”

Ask him how he manages to remain calm during the daily political “crisis” on Capitol Hill, and he’ll tell you with a straight face: “Nothing to it – I’m Norwegian!”

Larsen and his fellow House Democrats lost the 2002 vote on invading Iraq (the final tally was 296-133 in favor of the invasion,), but he says recent events there have triggered “increasing doubts” about the wisdom of the invasion strategy.

“I do think the public in general is growing more and more skeptical about our chances for success in Iraq,” he said. “We need to support our soldiers there, obviously, but we also need to push this administration more in order to establish some milestones that will let us measure success – such as the successful reconstruction of the infrastructure and the development of an effective government – that will define the point at which we can bring our folks home.”

Chasing That ’Last Meatball’

Spend an hour or two in Larsen’s office in Washington, D.C., and you’ll quickly discover that this PLU political science student – unlike some of his Capitol Hill colleagues – is easygoing and not burdened with a jumbo-sized ego.

“I think the key to being effective in Congress is knowing how to get along with the people around you,” Larsen said, after flopping down on a battered-looking sofa.

“Take jobs, for instance. In the Pacific Northwest, everybody knows that better transportation means more jobs.”

That’s why he sought a position on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, to fight for federal funds for transportation in Washington, including more dollars for the important ferry system.

“We’re talking about $5 million annually for the ferries, and that should be very helpful for the economy,” Larsen said. “And that transportation bill is a great example of how you can help your district by learning how to get along with your colleagues on a congressional committee.”

Why is Rick Larsen so good at “schmoozing” his way to maximum dollars for his congressional district?

“Well, I was one of eight kids in our family,” he said with a delighted chuckle, “and one of the first things you learn in that situation is that you better speak up and go after what you want at the dinner table. If there’s a meatball left on that plate, you better go after it!”

Born and raised as the son of a utility company worker in Arlington, Wash., Larsen arrived on the PLU campus in the fall of 1983 – and soon discovered that he had a passion for the “fascinating complexity” that could be found in both economics and political science.

After deciding to major in political science, the high-flying Larsen was dismayed to find himself enrolled in a required microeconomics course taught by Marlen Miller.

“That was the toughest class I ever took,” Larsen said. “I spent two hours a night on that one class, alone! It nearly killed me, but in the end I got an A- . . . and I learned some amazing stuff about the power of economic markets on politics, and vice versa.

“The great thing about going to PLU was the way the professors required you to think for yourself – and Dr. Miller was an absolute genius at that.”

After graduating and then earning a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Minnesota, Larsen thought he was headed toward a career in business. But he wound up running for and winning a seat on the Snohomish County Council in 1997. Three years later, at 35, he defeated a strong Republican candidate in a race to replace Republican Metcalf in legendary Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s home district.

According to some of his colleagues and political associates, Larsen has a “natural instinct” for politics, and a relaxed, “down-to-earth” personality that serves him well.

“With Rick Larsen, what you see is what you get,” said Bob Anderson, a former mayor of Everett. “He’s a very genuine guy, and he’s also very bright.”

Adds former Washington State Transportation Commission Chair Connie Niva: “He’s young, he’s smart and he’s gutsy. His district is very complicated, and he’s a perfect match for it, because he’s very bright, but he’s also very tough. That vote he took on Iraq – that was extremely difficult for him, but he made the vote, and I think the military folks in his district really did respect him for it.”

Larsen said his agenda includes helping “the workers, farmers and military folks” who make up the heart of his widely variegated district.

“The Second District runs all the way up to the Canadian border,” he said, “and we have everything from the fishing industry to the aerospace industry to raspberry producers and military families and even a huge aluminum smelter at Ferndale that employs 500 people.

“It’s my job to figure out how to try and satisfy all these different needs and aspirations – and that’s why I’m glad I grew up with seven brothers and sisters. When you come from a large family like that, you learn a thing or two about the importance of speaking up for what you want . . . and also about the vital importance of compromise.”

Tom Nugent is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

 

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© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Fall 2005

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