- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

It would be hard to guess that a nine-term congresswoman, former city council member and technology executive was once on welfare.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey is not shy about reminding people where she came from. In fact, the California Democrat says her experience as a single mother in the mid-1960s — working to support her children, who were 1, 3 and 5 years old when her husband left the family — guides her as the outspoken co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

“That’s never left me, how important that safety net was to our family,” says Ms. Woolsey, whose district north of San Francisco includes all of Marin and most of Sonoma counties. “That made the difference for us, and now I want to make a difference for other people.”

Ms. Woolsey, who worked during the three years she was on government assistance, eventually rose through the ranks of a telecommunications firm from secretary to executive. Active in protests against the Vietnam War and in the movements for women’s liberation and environmental protection, she started her career in public service at the Petaluma City Council, where she earned more votes than any candidate to date.

A decade later, in 1992, Ms. Woolsey ran for Congress to replace outgoing Rep. Barbara Boxer, who was running for the Senate. She credits her victory over nine Democratic primary challengers to her unique story.

“I came from an entirely different place than they did. I had lived something they had never experienced — being down and out and needing help and pulling myself up,” she says.

Arriving on Capitol Hill, Ms. Woolsey sought a seat on the House Education and Labor Committee, where she authored a school breakfast pilot program that was signed into law by President Clinton. As chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, she has sponsored legislation to help parents balance the responsibilities of work and family through initiatives such as universal preschool, public investments in child care and paid family leave.

However, Ms. Woolsey’s most high-profile activism on Capitol Hill probably has been over the war in Iraq. As the first member of Congress to sponsor a resolution calling for American troops to exit the country, she also is a co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus and has spoken more than 200 times on the House floor about the war.

“We’ve caused more terrorism in Iraq by being in a war we shouldn’t have been in. We haven’t accomplished anything,” she says. “I want us to invest in humanitarian support, in economic support, but I’m just absolutely certain that there is no solution that will be coming down the barrel of a gun.”

Ms. Woolsey is the member of Congress who gave antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan a pass to attend the 2006 State of the Union speech by President Bush. Mrs. Sheehan was arrested there for wearing a T-shirt with the number of troops killed in Iraq. Ms. Woolsey denounced the arrest as a violation of freedom of speech.

Her views are reflective of California’s liberal 6th Congressional District, where she says voter turnout was about 94 percent in November. Teresa Barrett, vice mayor of Petaluma, says she is “grateful” to have Ms. Woolsey as her representative.

“Lynn has always been available to her constituents,” Ms. Barrett says. “Her passion and concern for education, human rights, international peace and justice have not waned but only strengthened during her time in Congress.”

Ms. Woolsey says her office fields about 3,000 calls, e-mails and letters each week — and responds to each of them.

Even with President Obama in office, Ms. Woolsey and her progressive colleagues are not in perfect lockstep with the White House on his plans for the region. She joined with Reps. Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters, both of California, in questioning Mr. Obama’s proposal to beef up troops in Afghanistan. She also says his proposal to withdraw troops from Iraq over the next three years does not move fast enough.

“I don’t believe that leaving 50,000 troops is bringing all of our troops home,” she says of the noncombat force that would remain. “The end of 2011 is three years from now, so that extends our stay in Iraq three more years. I just disagree what that would do for the Iraqi people in giving them back their sovereignty.”

As for concerns there might not be adequate security in the country after U.S. forces exit, Ms. Woolsey says the United States has “an embassy larger than the Vatican, so believe me, there will be plenty of military protection on the ground in Iraq.”

Acknowledging political pressure on Mr. Obama to move toward the center — especially as he courts moderate Democrats on initiatives such as his $3.6 trillion budget proposal — she says one of the goals of the Congressional Progressive Caucus is to ensure he doesn’t move too far from the left.

“We know that we are an important piece of the Obama administration because it’s important that all leaders have a progressive side, a push, so that our leadership doesn’t start in the middle and go to the right,” she says. “The basic Democratic policies are exactly what the Progressive Caucus supports, and we can’t forget that. We can’t take our base for granted, or they’re not going to be there for us.”

Though she says bipartisanship is “the way to go,” Ms. Woolsey also says it’s one thing to reach out; it’s another to compromise on key principles.

“I’m not OK with giving up Democratic values to get votes from people who aren’t going to vote with us anyway,” she says of Republicans.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Woolsey, 71, describes her children as “really good Democrats.” She says they often call her about an issue before it reaches the House floor. As for her small grandchildren, they’re comfortable with having a congresswoman for a grandmother.

“My nine-year-old grandson introduced me in front of his whole school in second grade,” she recalls. “His little sister, now this is the other side of this thing. I was buying something, and I said, ‘I wish I would have had these stockings at the inauguration’ and the salesgirl says, ‘Were you at the inauguration?’ My granddaughter, who’s five years old, said, ‘She’s Lynn Woolsey!’ I said, ‘Whoa, we got to calm that one down.’ But it was cute.”

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