WASHINGTON, DC — Toledo Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, 76, will make history when the 118th Congress meets on Jan. 3. She becomes the longest-serving woman in Congressional history, breaking a record previously held by former United States Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.
When Kaptur entered Congress nearly 40 years ago, Return of the Jedi was the highest-grossing film, Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the highest-grossing record album, and Sally Ride was the first American woman in space. At that time there were about two dozen women in Congress. Kaptur estimates that there are now five times as many.
Women first began serving in Congress in 1917 when Montana elected Jeannette Rankin. Kaptur — who wrote a 1996 book titled Women of Congress, A Twentieth-Century Odyssey — says many of the first women elected to Congress got the job by succeeding a deceased husband. Starting in Congress when they were older limited the time these women could realistically graduate, Kaptur says. The longest-serving male congressman — former Michigan Democrat John Dingell, Jr. — was first elected to Congress at the age of 29 and has served for more than 59 years.
Kaptur, a regional planner by trade, said she joined Congress at a time when more women were entering the workforce. After serving as domestic policy adviser to former President Jimmy Carter, the Lucas County Democratic Party recruited Kaptur to challenge an incumbent GOP. She defeated him in the 1982 election and has since been re-elected.
In Congress, Kaptur wrote legislation erecting the World War II memorial. She also counts securing funding for the Veterans Glass Skyway Bridge across the Maumee River in Toledo as one of her proudest accomplishments. She co-chairs the House Auto Caucus, the House Great Lakes Task Force, the Congressional Ukraine Caucus and the Congressional Poland Caucus, and has been a vocal opponent of trade deals like NAFTA, which she criticizes for outsourcing US jobs.
Her seniority on the House Appropriations Committee, where she is the top Democrat on the subcommittee that funds energy and water development projects, allows her to channel money to Ohio for projects like the Great Lakes clean-up initiatives. The American Rescue Plan, which she helped enact, set up billions of dollars to help Ohio recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, including more than $500 million for Cleveland and more than $200 million for Cuyahoga County .
Over the years, she has been courted by Ross Perot as a vice presidential candidate and starred in the film Michael Moore.Capitalism: A Love Story‘ after publicly urging people at risk of eviction to ‘squat in their own homes’.
She says many of her proudest accomplishments have taken more than a decade of effort, like building the World War II memorial and raising more than $1 billion to modernize the Soo Locks Great Lakes transportation hub. She says that’s why seniority is so valuable to the region.
“Something important doesn’t happen overnight, you have to get used to it,” says Kaptur, one of whose hobbies is painting. “It’s like a sculpture, not a quick watercolor.”
Republicans, who controlled Ohio’s redistribution process for the last election, attempted to oust Kaptur by redrawing their congressional district to favor Republicans. Instead of the Democratic-friendly district she’s held for the past decade — stretching between Toledo and Cleveland along the shore of Lake Erie — she’s had to run for re-election in a remodeled district stretching to Ohio’s western border . The new district, which favored former President Donald Trump by 3 points in 2020, includes all or part of Erie, Sandusky, Ottawa, Lucas, Fulton, Williams and Defiance counties.
Despite the less favorable terrain, Kaptur won 56.6 percent of the vote against Trump-backed Port Clinton Republican JR Majewski. It helped Kaptur that national Republicans abandoned Majewski’s campaign after an Associated Press report that he misrepresented his military service by claiming he had been deployed to Afghanistan when he was actually loading planes in Qatar.
Kaptur’s campaign says it was 8 to 11 points ahead of President Joe Biden’s margins, including in rural counties that were new to the district. Her campaign focused on kitchen-table issues, like securing federal investment and good-paying jobs for the area, and described how her seniority helped her steer valuable projects to Ohio, like money to dredging ports along Lake Erie, investments in the steel industry and shipbuilding in the Great Lakes.
When Kaptur returned to Washington, DC after her victory for her first meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, she received a standing ovation from her peers.
“That lifted me 10 feet off the ground,” Kaptur recalled.
Kaptur says she can’t predict how much longer she’ll stay in Congress, saying, “Events have a way of shaping your life.” In the future, she says, she wants to help secure a rail passenger system between Cleveland and Chicago , and working with Canada to secure rail service between Great Lakes communities on either side of the border.
“Right now I have the energy and I think I have the knowledge to really, really make a difference,” says Kaptur. “And I have a long list of items on my agenda.”