When Rep. Cynthia M. Lummis was elected to Congress in 2008, she wanted to be a “reformer” and rein in spending and squelch bills that infringed on states’ rights.
She’ll retire at the end of 2016, having fallen short of accomplishing her objective. “It has not been the Congress that I hoped it would be during my seven years,” she recently conceded in an interview with Roll Call.
Yet while Lummis was focused on those goals, she was building a record that may help forge a different political legacy.
“I was the only Republican woman on the Science Committee. The only Republican woman on Natural Resources,” the Wyoming Republican recalled of previous stints. “I’m the only Republican woman on Oversight and Government Reform.”
And she’s the only woman in the otherwise homogenous House Freedom Caucus.
“They’re certainly aware of it,” said Lummis when asked if the other members of that hard-line group see the significance of her membership. “I think they recognize some diversity is a good thing.”
It’s not clear who, if anyone, might take Lummis’ place among her Republican women colleagues. And Lummis herself can neither explain what she acknowledges is a “woman problem” in the Republican Party, nor offer advice on how to fix it.
“It’s pretty challenging within the conference for women,” said Lummis, who attributed the uphill battle to men not being ready for the shift in gender power, “I’ve got to be honest.”
She said she now “rarely notices” when she’s the only woman among the GOP.
In many ways, she’s run against the odds her entire political career.
In 1979, she became the youngest woman ever to win a seat in the Wyoming Legislature. She was an elected official at the age of 24 when a male lobbyist, furious with her vote on a certain issue, said, “Little girl, I’m gonna take you over my knee.”
Lummis’ response? “I got in his face. It was so completely out of line.”
She served in the state House until 1983, then earned a law degree from the University of Wyoming in 1985. She served in the House again, from 1985 to 1993, then served in the Wyoming Senate from 1993 to 1995 and was Wyoming's treasurer from 1999 to 2007. By the time she ran for Congress in 2008 to replace retiring GOP Rep. Barbara Cubin, Lummis was the “establishment” candidate, the known commodity in her field of opponents from both parties.
House Republican leaders, eager to promote from within the party’s pool of women, gave Lummis the warm welcome reserved for top recruits. They handed her plum panel assignments in 2009, and named her an appropriator after she won her second term in 2010.
It was on the Appropriations Committee that Lummis began to chafe under the status quo and she let the subcommittee chairmen, the "cardinals" so influential in setting spending priorities, know how she felt.
"It was constant pushback. It was perfectly miserable,” she said. She left the committee just two years after getting the slot. In some circles, the story was she got kicked off. That's a claim she disputes by saying she "self-deported" to the Natural Resources Committee, a better match for her state.
Regardless, she was marked as a troublemaker, and Lummis said she received mixed messages from leadership on everything from how to raise money to whether she was welcome on congressional delegations. "It was a very weird experience,” she said.
Over the summer she was kicked off the whip team for opposing a procedural vote on the rule to bring up trade legislation.
Before leaving the whip team, she said she was struck by the disconnect between how establishment Republicans viewed the House Freedom Caucus and how the caucus saw itself.
“Some of my colleagues thought we were just hankerin’ to take down a rule,” Lummis said, “almost for the blood sport of it. And it wasn’t like that.”
Lummis position in the Republican Conference and the Freedom Caucus has led her to form some unexpected alliances.
“It’s kind of fun for me to be in a place where I’m not the most conservative person in the room,” Lummis said, describing an episode earlier this year where she had to explain why conservative women would want leadership to recall an anti-abortion bill because of language defining rape.
The 61-year-old’s relationships with the other House Republican women have at times been strained, particularly with the younger women in the conference, whom she called “the younger gals.”
“Maybe [they] take a little more for granted what their work lives have been like in relationship to men,” said Lummis.
She said she related more to the women her age, citing Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, an Appropriations cardinal and the only Republican woman to ever represent the Lone Star State, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., whom Lummis predicted would someday “ascend to a real position of super-significance.”
“We started in positions that we’re in where we were so far in the minority, there were hardly any women doing what we were doing and we got pushback,” Lummis said of their trio. “A lot of pushback.”
She’s found common ground with women on the Democratic side of the aisle lately, too, noting her connections with Reps. Betty McCollum of Minnesota, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Jackie Speier of California.
“When [Speier] found out I lost my husband just before re-election — she had lost a husband — she and I went out to lunch in the Capitol dining room,” Lummis said. “She gave me a copy of her book and, you know, we had a great visit.”
Lummis’ husband, Alvin Wiederspahn, died last October of a heart attack. (In another twist for Lummis, Wiederspahn, a former state lawmaker, was a Democrat). The couple had earlier in 2014 purchased a farm in Wyoming, and when Lummis retires she plans to return.
She thinks Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., might hold the key to making some of the changes she always hoped to see in the culture of Congress, adding that she thinks conservative women like herself will have a place in a Ryan-led House.
“I’m guessing that Paul Ryan gets it,” she said.
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