By Christine Todd Whitman
November 13, 2014
NEW JERSEY lost one of its best yesterday with former U.S. Rep. Marge Roukema’s passing. Roukema was a trailblazer in many respects, but I particularly admired her for her focus on building consensus, even in dealing with the nation’s most contentious issues.
First elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from northern New Jersey in 1980, she became the longest-serving woman in the House and dean of the New Jersey congressional delegation, retiring in 2003 after 11 terms. She was a former teacher whose first foray into politics was on the Ridgewood Board of Education. Her decision to begin a career in politics came after the death of her 17-year-old son from leukemia; she told The New York Times she needed an outlet for her energy after he passed away.
She was rare in many respects – a moderate Republican, she focused on family issues and welfare reform, often drawing on her own experiences as a parent to ensure other Americans had the same benefits she enjoyed. She worked tirelessly on the Family and Medical Leave Act that was eventually passed and signed into law in 1993.
Her honest quality
In my own dealings with Marge, I found I never had to wonder where I stood with her. She didn’t pull punches and she was very straightforward, but her directness was refreshing – you never had to worry that she was saying one thing to your face and another behind your back. That honest quality has unfortunately been lacking in Washington for some time now.
Marge was much beloved by her constituents and as a result always won by a significant margin in the general election, between 65 and 71 percent of the vote. But her own party continued to attack her from the right in primaries, which grew tiresome and eventually motivated her to retire from Congress.
In her final term in Congress, she was the ranking Republican on the Financial Services Committee, but the House leadership did not choose her as the new chair for the committee. She attributed this slight to being partially about her gender, but also about her refusal to vote only the party line. She believed that she wasn’t elected to do what the leadership commanded. As she said, “I was elected to do what my intelligence, my conscience and my constituents needed … that was my reason for being in Congress.”
This focus on building consensus on the issues that she cared about most was what set Marge apart as a leader. No one should doubt for a second that she had very strong opinions. But one should not mistake compromise for not having robust personal commitments. More than anything, she was determined to enact policies that helped her constituents and the American people.
A rare leader
Sadly, leaders like Marge are all too rare, especially today. We live in a time where political compromise has become a source of ridicule – even the word makes leaders shudder. We seem to have lost the shared commitment we once had, especially in government. Every issue that is discussed is done so from the political, rather than policy perspective. The approach to any problem is that one side must lose for the other to win, that it’s a zero sum game.
Marge was determined to displace that attitude, and to put the right policies for America ahead of what made her popular within her party.
Marge Roukema set a strong example for leaders today – her honesty, her focus on her constituents and on building consensus are qualities that I can only hope our leaders today will seek to emulate. Her leadership made America a better nation and she is deserving of such a tribute.