Marcy Kaptur was at a Toledo, Ohio, funeral home when The New York Times interviewed her during her first campaign for the House. It was 1982. But the headline of the resulting story could have been written today: “Democrats in Ohio Woo Disenchanted Defectors.”
For a party still grappling with what went wrong in 2016, taking back the House in November now looks like the Democrats’ best chance of reclaiming some power in a Republican-controlled government. And although the most natural pickups might be in Virginia, California or New York, party strategists acknowledge they need to play for the center too.
That’s a cry Kaptur, currently in her 18th term, has been making for decades.
Watch: A Look Back at Kaptur, Longest-Serving Woman in the House
The Ohio Democrat recently became the longest-serving woman in the House, surpassing the record set by Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, a wealthy woman and advocate for veterans who succeeded her husband in 1925 but went on to serve until 1960. Kaptur understands much of what the first female presidential nominee of a major party did not.
“Trump did very well here by sounding a lot like Marcy Kaptur on trade,” said Toledo Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz, a former intern for the congresswoman. President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by more than 8 points in Ohio.
Kaptur unseated a one-term Republican by 19 points in that first race in 1982 with no help from the national party. She’s since moderated her position on abortion, but her core message — about the working people’s economy — has stayed the same, and it sounds a lot like what today’s Democratic Party is trying to find its way back to.
On the day of Washington’s last snowstorm, Kaptur had driven herself from her condo in Old Town, Alexandria, to her first event of the day, at 8 a.m. No one had bothered to tell her it was canceled.
Then she realized she’d forgotten to put on earrings. She was supposed to speak that afternoon at a ceremony honoring the Office of Strategic Services.
“I thought, what do I have, keys or paperclips? So one of the members lent me a pair, and I put them on, and my staff goes, ‘Oh no,’” she recalled with a chuckle, walking to the ceremony. She didn’t wear them.
The 71-year-old lawmaker doesn’t look like the new generation of rabble rousers in the House who demanded new party leadership after a disappointing 2016 and have stressed the need for an economic message.
Kaptur embodies politesse. Her ringtone is a melodic harp. She piped up at a recent Democratic Caucus meeting to lament an anonymous peer’s plunging neckline. Those who know her well say she could have been a nun.
Although she once weighed a challenge to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, she stuck with the California Democrat in last year’s leadership elections. But she was among those members most vocal about their frustration with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s staff and consultants in 2016.
The DCCC is targeting six seats in Ohio this year.
Kaptur is still skeptical that the committee cares about the heartland, in part because she sees how gerrymandering has locked out her party. But she had only praise for DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján and his efforts at inclusivity.
“She’s not like her colleague from Youngstown,” said a Democratic strategist, alluding to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who’s been known to criticize the DCCC without ever attending its meetings.
And she’s been sounding the alarm about the dominance of coastal interests for much longer.
“If you look at the leadership in the Democratic Party — you know, California, New York, Florida, Maryland, South Carolina — does anybody notice anything here? You can’t really serve the country well when major areas don’t have greater voice,” she said outside the House chamber in February.
Just the day before, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. had addressed the Democratic Caucus at its annual retreat and urged members to start “hollering more loudly” for working people. His message was overshadowed, though, by Pelosi’s eight-hour speech on the House floor about the young undocumented immigrants, also known as “Dreamers.”
Kaptur is sympathetic to the Dreamers’ plight, but she doesn’t think framing immigration as a social justice issue resonates in her region.
“So a worker comes to Iowa in a meat plant, gets his arm cut off and they send him back to Mexico because they don’t have to pay disability to undocumented workers. It’s ugly,” Kaptur said.
“In our region, there’s economic justice also, so I don’t feel they’re playing the piano on all the important keys,” she said of party leadership.
Even if they haven’t all taken her advice, leaders hear her.
“She’s been incredibly bold in relating to the conference the need to have a message — an economic message and a jobs message — not just for middle America, but for all Americans,” Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley said of Kaptur earlier this month.
Watch: Will the Chambers Flip? Redditors Want to Know
Nail files to Congress
Kaptur can be critical of the national party because she owes them nothing.
When local leaders reached out to her about running for Congress, she was studying for her doctorate at MIT. She’d already worked as a city planner in the Carter White House. She wanted to teach.
That changed one Thanksgiving break, when she accompanied her mother to the grocery store in Toledo. An elementary school classmate emerged from behind the meat counter and told Kaptur how hard life had become back home.
Before long, she’d withdrawn her last semester’s tuition at MIT and packed herself into a U-Haul.
“It had a speed control on it, so I couldn’t go over like 50 miles per hour from Boston to Toledo in the driving snow,” Kaptur recalled. “I thought if I can do this, I can do anything.”
She ran a nontraditional campaign — by D.C. standards.
“I got criticism from some of the Washington groups saying, this woman could never win because she’s giving away nail files, we don’t do that in politics.”
A penny per file, they were the only things she could afford to give away with her name on it.
“And out in our area, men and women accepted them from me — so it wasn’t a feminist thing,” Kaptur said, noting that people used them on spark plugs or to sharpen fishing hooks.
She eventually came to Washington seeking support, but got none from the national party. Her first two PAC checks came from the boilermakers and the asbestos workers. She still gets emotional talking about that early support.
At 9 a.m. the day after the election, Kaptur got a call from the then-head of the DCCC.
She remembers the conversation: “‘Oh Congresswoman-elect Kaptur, we want to congratulate you so much. Um, and you know, I’ve really been remiss, I have had an envelope in my briefcase I’ve been meaning to send you for $5,000 for your campaign.’”
“I thought, yep, that’s how Washington works,” Kaptur said.
Her own voice
Kaptur’s never shied away from challenging her party. At a campaign stop for President Bill Clinton at a Toledo Jeep plant in 1996, she denounced the North American Free Trade Agreement that he signed into law three years earlier.
“There was an uncomfortable moment up on the platform, but that’s Marcy. That’s what people liked about her,” Kapszukiewicz said.
Kaptur still lives with her brother in the Toledo house where they were raised.
“When Tip said all politics is local, he could have been talking about her,” said Steve Fought, a former Kaptur aide and campaign manager, referring to the famous adage by former Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr.
“She’s hard to get out of a room,” Fought said. “You kind of need a tow truck. She wants to be the last person to leave.”
It was at a local fish fry that she met a veteran who asked why there was no World War II memorial in the nation’s capital. Building one then became her crusade.
Her staff calls her “Ma’am.” But to her constituents — and even to some of the police and building staff in the Capitol — she’s Marcy.
That hometown familiarity helped save her in 2012, after GOP legislators drew her and former Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich into the same district. She went on to win 94 percent of the vote in Lucas County, her home county.
Although she’s in no electoral danger herself, local officials like to test Kaptur in their polls “just to know what the benchmark is,” Kapszukiewicz said. “OK, that’s perfection.”
But success at home hasn’t always translated to power in Washington.
Despite having served on the Appropriations Committee longer, Kaptur lost out to New York Rep. Nita M. Lowey for the top Democratic spot in 2012.
That the victor, a former DCCC chairwoman who raised lots of money, was from one of the coasts wasn’t lost on Kaptur, who in an interview with The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer at the time described the race against Lowey, a friend, as running against the New York Yankees.
Kaptur had also been out of step with Democratic leadership on some social issues, like abortion.
Although she personally believes life begins at conception, she now votes in favor of abortion rights.
“She recognized the winds had changed,” Fought said, and that “being a pro-life champion would not do justice to the district.”
Kaptur’s not used to being the center of attention.
She didn’t tell many friends about the milestone she achieved this month, but she’s heard from her college boyfriend in Wisconsin, a high school acquaintance in Las Vegas who heard about her on NPR, and many constituents.
“I love the House,” she said at the reception honoring her earlier this month, which attracted the likes of former North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole and former Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz.
Amid the bouquets now crowding her office, Kaptur has continued the work she’s always been passionate about: meeting with constituents and trying to find ways to reinvest in underserved communities.
“There’s a lot of collateral damage, and our party simply must be a leader in these places again,” Kaptur said last month when asked about her party’s 2018 message.
“I feel I’m one of those leaders, but I’m only one voice,” she said.