TOLEDO, Ohio — The longest-serving woman in the history of the U.S. House raised money for her first campaign more three decades ago by holding a bake sale.
Marcy Kaptur still returns from Washington most weekends to the modest single-story home where she grew up in Toledo, tending to a vegetable garden in the side yard during the summer.
How the 71-year-old Democrat, a daughter of two factory workers, has managed to stay in office so long can be linked to an unwavering connection to her working class roots.
Now in the House just over 35 years, Kaptur last week set the mark for the longest tenure by a woman — surpassing Edith Nourse Rogers, a Massachusetts Republican who served until her death in 1960.
“It sounds like a lot of time until you’ve done it, and then it seems like a wink,” Kaptur said Friday.
She’s perhaps best known for her early backing of World War II veterans memorial. Kaptur credits the idea to a mail carrier from near her hometown who asked her at a fish fry to explain why there was no WWII memorial in Washington.
She then introduced a bill to create a memorial, which opened on the National Mall in 2004.
Never much of a fundraiser and willing to go against party leaders on issues such as free trade and abortion, Kaptur sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee but never ascended to leadership positions in Congress.
She also rejected attempts to recruit her to run for Ohio governor in 2006 and turned down Ross Perot’s offer to be his vice presidential running mate in 1996.
Kaptur said she has stayed in the House because on the national level “it’s the closest you can stay to the people.”
“You really need to get close to people, to hear them and value their insights,” she said. “It’s a great test tube for America because you can see ways to make things better.”
Fellow Democrat Marcia Fudge, who represents a neighboring congressional district in Cleveland, said Kaptur has a deep connection to those who she represents in northern Ohio.
“Some people do it better than others,” Fudge said. “I think she’s one of the best at it.”
Kaptur, whose district now stretches along Lake Erie from Toledo to Cleveland, is seeking a 19th term in November.
Her most serious election challenge of late came when she defeated former Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich when they were thrown into the same district six years ago.
She famously criticized former President Bill Clinton while introducing him at a campaign rally for his support of the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it cost Ohio thousands of jobs to Mexico.
Despite their disagreements, Clinton during his second term called Kaptur “perhaps the most ferocious defender of middle-class economics and middle-class values in the Congress.”
“No one is a bigger fighter than her,” said Jim Ruvolo, an informal adviser to Kaptur for many years. “But she’s always civil. That’s very rare in today’s politics.”
Kaptur had been a domestic policy adviser for President Jimmy Carter and was pursuing a doctorate degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when Ruvolo recruited her to run for Congress in 1982.
He remembers she suggested holding a bake sale when the campaign money was running low.
“We all laughed and then she raised somewhere around $8,000,” he said. “She knew her constituents. She knew what worked.”