“Some people see a problem and walk on; some people say, ‘I’ve got to do something about it.’”
Nita Lowey belongs firmly in the second of those two camps. Congressional member for District 17 in New York for 32 years, she broke the glass ceiling by being the first female to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the ultra-powerful House Appropriations Committee. This is a politician whose long roster of achievements is grounded in two factors – her commitment to helping people, and her undimmable positivity.
“I’ve always been an optimist,” she says. “When I first ran for Congress, no one thought I had a prayer. But my mother was my role model. She always looked to the positive.”
Challenging Republican Joe DioGuardi for what was then the 20th District, Lowey fought “a tough race” to gain a narrow victory. But she is handing off what is now regarded as a safe seat, a testament perhaps in part to a shifting demographic, but also to her commitment to both legislative work and case work in the community.
Interviewed by River Journal before the Nov. 3 election, Lowey said of her heir apparent, Democratic nominee Mondaire Jones, “Should he become the next Congressman from this district, I shall be available to assist him in a smooth transition, so that residents of Westchester and Rockland Counties will be well served.” (In fact, she’ll get that opportunity, with Jones now the District 17 Congressman-elect.)
Having spent the early part of her career working for the community and state, she was intrigued at the suggestion by an activist in the late 1980s that she run for a seat. But the opportunity to serve was irresistible.
“This is a wonderful district, very diverse,” she said. “And I’ve focused on both the legislation that improves the quality of life, and casework. During the coronavirus pandemic alone, we were able to help some 1700 individuals locally.”
When asked about the high points of her career, Lowey says that casework has brought her the most satisfaction. But the list of her legislative achievements is long and impressive.
Some of her most significant work was focused on local problems, like cleaning up the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. She worked to improve safety and security at Indian Point, and more recently to establish federal funding for its decommissioning. She successfully championed the effort to get billions in federal loans for the Mario Cuomo Bridge and secured millions more for roads, water treatment plants, and local hospitals.
BERT AND ERNIE
And then there were the national campaigns, establishing tougher laws to curb gun violence, improving rail safety, fighting for food allergy labeling, science research, gender equality, education, and memorably challenging Newt Gingrich’s push to defund public broadcasting, which saw Lowey accompanied at a congressional hearing by Sesame Street characters Bert and Ernie.
As well as achieving her ground-breaking roles in the Democratic Party and Congress, Lowey has been a strong supporter of women’s causes, earning herself the title “the most prominent abortion rights advocate in Congress” from The Washington Post. But she doesn’t call herself a feminist. “I’ve never put a label on myself,” she comments. “But I’m proud of being a woman and my achievements.”
And she does accept that she brought female qualities to her work. “Women are great multi-taskers, no question. We can do many things at the same time – chair a committee, be out in the district, and advocate for women’s rights.” She also talks fondly of working with Nancy Pelosi for almost her entire career.
When asked about disappointments, her list is short. “Having Trump become president was the biggest low point.” And she is unhappy about the challenges to a woman’s right to choose. “So many important causes have been attacked, undermined and rolled back. But I never accept a negative action from those on the other side of the aisle. And I try not to dwell on regrets. Tomorrow is another day.”
She finds the current mood of the country and the surge of activism uplifting. “It’s very exciting for both young and old to feel that they have an opportunity to influence public policy. But for the young people, my advice is: Get the best education you can. Demonstrate – yes. But work in the community too, make sure you are doing your utmost to make this a better world for everybody.”
She has a soft spot for the Hudson Valley, its beauty, its parks and its good food. Asked for her favorite restaurants in the district, she happily names two — MP Taverna and Red Hat on the River, both in Irvington.
And what will she miss most, as she steps down? “Knowing you can help people. It’s been an honor and privilege to serve. But guess what – I’m looking forward in a positive way.”
Elsbeth Lindner is Editor of River Journal.