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WASHINGTON - Given the choice between guns and butter, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur - an outspoken foe of the Iraq war - picked guns.
Miss Kaptur has served northwest Ohio for 24 years, making her senior enough to become a prominent committee chairman after Democrats retook the House in 2006.
Congressmen refer to the chairmen as "cardinals," equating them to the bishops who elect a pope. Chairmen can block or blaze the path by which a bill becomes a law.
Miss Kaptur could have been chairman of the agriculture appropriations subcommittee, which controls $19 billion in discretionary federal spending on food and farms. She traded that position away to join the defense appropriations subcommittee, even though agriculture is a major Ohio industry.
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"It's as though I started my career over again," Miss Kaptur said. "It meant ceding the authority and the opportunity to be a cardinal."
For years, she shunned higher office, saying it was important for Toledoans that she retain her House seat because of the seniority it was building for her. If Democrats ever regained control, that staying power would pay off for her constituents.
"It would give us a presence at the head of the table," she told The Blade in 1999.
But just as Democrats regained control, she rejected the chairmanship she had worked so long to obtain.
Doubts about the architecture of power on Capitol Hill have consumed much of Miss Kaptur's thoughts recently. On the verge of being the longest-serving Democratic woman in congressional history, she resents her party's fund-raising system and believes that bypassing a chairmanship is in her district's best interest.
Congress is predisposed to the upper class, which makes the continued election of a working-class woman a "triple miracle," Miss Kaptur said last Wednesday during an interview between votes outside the House floor.
Cardinals must ascend through a hierarchy. Saints must perform three miracles. Miss Kaptur, a practicing Roman Catholic, has no pretensions of canonization, but she does have a sense of mission.
"If you look at your job as a prophet, then your works come after you," she said.
Before running for Congress in 1982 against a Republican who had been carried into office by Ronald Reagan's election, Miss Kaptur was appointed an urban adviser in the Carter administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Other than her hairstyle, she said little has changed about her.
Miss Kaptur still drives a 1985 Oldsmobile, she remains unmarried, and she can't imagine raising a child during a 90-hour work week and a 500-mile commute between Toledo and Washington.
"So my motherhood is of a different order," she said.
She has a base congressional salary of $165,200, yet she is not a millionaire. Federal filings show Miss Kaptur's net worth is between $264,103 and $661,000, which ranks her 253rd out of 435 colleagues.
"Marcy's the kind of person who can't be bought," Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D., Ohio) said while standing outside the U.S. Capitol last week. "That's the most precious quality in government. I'm the president of her fan club."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D., South Carolina) describes Miss Kaptur as a leader who is not a "headline seeker," someone he sought advice from after his 1992 election.
But Miss Kaptur's move to Defense appropriations puzzled him slightly. "Why are you doing this?" he recalled asking her.
"Because I can more effectively serve my constituents on this subcommittee," Miss Kaptur responded, even though Toledo lacks the military presence of San Diego or Fayetteville, N.C.
Here is her logic: Annual discretionary spending by defense appropriations is $393 billion, 20 times greater than agriculture appropriations, where she'll stay as a member. That sum provides more leverage to bargain with colleagues.
It also lets her devote money to issues she is passionate about. Defense appropriations has a firm grip on the spigot for Iraq war funding. It also recently approved $800 million to treat post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries for veterans.
"Just that alone was worth it," Miss Kaptur said.
Miss Kaptur plans to convert a military of oil-guzzling Humvees and battle tanks to alternative energy, a shift that owes as much to national security as environmentalism.
"I believe America's chief strategic vulnerability is our dependence on imported petroleum," she said. "We're trying to change the consciousness of the largest bureaucracy in the country."
Of the 21 House committees, nine have chairmen less senior than Miss Kaptur. And of the 12 appropriation subcommittees, eight have chairmen less senior than Miss Kaptur.
Being a chairman increasingly demands loyalty to the party line, said Boston University history professor Julian Zelizer.
"Partisanship is alive and well in Washington. The idea that we'll return to bipartisanship is pure rhetoric," Mr. Zelizer said. "There are limits to what committee chairs could be able to do without the consent of their party."
Miss Kaptur currently has $816,103 in her campaign coffers, according to federal filings. Of the $495,351 her campaign spent last year, $150,000 - the largest single expense - went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which helped finance races nationwide with $139 million in donations.
She made the donation to the committee after it listed her and most other House Democrats as "Dead-beat Democrats" for failing to adequately support the committee's efforts.
Explaining that it took 15 years to build her campaign reserves, Miss Kaptur said she dislikes the constant pressure to feed the Campaign Committee, a process she called "totally bizarre, totally obscene."
"You're threatened with your chairmanship if you're rising to be a chairman," Miss Kaptur said. "They feel, 'You better be part of the team. Don't you know what it means to be part of a team?' How's the team benefit my district? What did it do? Did it help the people in North Toledo who have no jobs?"
Jennifer Crider, a spokesman for the Campaign Committee, said Miss Kaptur's dues are fully paid from the last cycle. Miss Kaptur was not among the organization's top 20 donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington nonprofit group.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) gave the Campaign Committee $720,000. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) gave $635,000. And Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.), chairman of Defense appropriations, gave $532,500.
The money paid for television advertisements, signs, consultants, polls, and voter canvassing, all components of getting out the Democrats' message last year.
"I would disagree that money in politics is evil," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. "It's how money is used in politics that should be our focus. Investment in the right candidates helps to change policy."
And that compromise between money and ideals can be why someone like Miss Kaptur occasionally finds herself outside of partisan leadership after a quarter-century in Congress.
"I really learned what it means to be one out of 435," she said. "It's sometimes very difficult to achieve what you hope."
While speaking at a school last year, she tried to explain that burden to a group of students. She remembers the response from the front row.
"That's OK, congresslady," a boy said. "I'm 1 in 300 million."
Contact Joshua Boak at:
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