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- September 07, 1987
- Vol. 28
- No. 10
Pat Schroeder's Ambition to Be First Lady in the Oval Office Nears the Moment of Truth
Next up is Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder of Colorado. She has no entourage, no seductive presence or sonorous phrases—only a thin, reedy voice and a litany of familiar causes: protecting the environment, curbing military spending and shoring up the American family. Soon the crowd is won over in spite of itself. "Last year the Reagan Administration spent $30,000 per soldier and $400 per child," she tells them to swelling applause. "Our priorities are upside-down." By mid-speech, the audience is responding with cries of approval, the memory of Jackson's oratory beginning to fade.
Pat Schroeder, 47, isn't officially running for President—yet. But scenes like this are making it more and more likely that she will jump into the crowded Democratic race before very long, making her the first woman since Shirley Chisholm to go after a major-party nomination in a serious way. Until a few months ago, Schroeder had planned to soldier through this election—like the last—as campaign co-chairman for old pal Gary Hart, and think about making her own run in 1992. But Hart's indiscretions with Donna Rice wrecked that timetable, so now Schroeder has given herself three weeks—until the end of September—to assess the difficulties of jump starting a campaign at the final minute. Democratic pols, meanwhile, many of them already committed to other candidates, are scrambling to sort out their very mixed feelings about the quirky eight-term Congresswoman.
Unlike most Harvard lawyers who enter politics, Schroeder has never acquired a spit-shine persona. She fills in the 'P' in her signature with a smile face, once skateboarded to appointments on Capitol Hill and, during a 1979 trip to China, dressed up in a bunny suit to entertain children at a U.S. Embassy Easter party. But she does not have a marshmallow center. Barbed of tongue and quick in retort, she was asked by a male colleague, "How can you be the mother of two small children and a member of Congress at the same time?" "Because," Schroeder replied, "I have a brain and a uterus, and I use them both."
Women's groups appreciate such spirit, and Schroeder's recent appearances before NOW and the National Women's Political Caucus generated enthusiasm. The NOW delegates cheered her with "Run, Pat, Run" and pledged about $400,000 for a Schroeder candidacy—enough to qualify her for federal matching funds in several states. Still, her support among feminists is not universal. Some worry that an unsuccessful presidential bid this year, so soon after the Geraldine Ferraro fiasco, might reinforce the impression that women candidates don't have the goods. And they wonder whether Schroeder, with her talent for ad-libbing disparaging quips—it was she who coined the term "Teflon Presidency"—could be more than a symbolic candidate. "I think women really want to work for a winner this time," said one delegate to the NWPC.
Schroeder encountered a similar reaction in 1972, when, as a young attorney, she decided to run for Congress from Colorado's first district. "It's just too soon," members of the Denver Democratic Women's Caucus told her as they endorsed a male opponent she eventually defeated. It wasn't the first time that Pat Schroeder, née Scott, had found herself ahead of the pack. Raised in Des Moines, Iowa, the daughter of an aviation insurance adjuster and a grade school teacher, she had learned to fly by the time she was a teenager and worked her way through the University of Minnesota doing what her father did: flying to crash sites and assessing the damage. At Harvard Law School, where she met her future husband, Jim Schroeder, Pat was one of only 15 women in a class of 550. Graduating in 1964, the newlyweds moved to Denver to practice.
It was Jim who went into politics first, running unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1970 while Pat, who'd previously been a field attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, taught at a local college. Pat's own candidacy two years later was almost an afterthought. The Democrats were faced with a seemingly hopeless race for Congress against a strong incumbent Republican. Jim Schroeder asked one man who turned down the nomination, "What about your wife?" To which the fellow shot back, "What about yours?" Everyone had a good laugh, but then, says Pat, "We realized it wasn't so absurd. I knew labor unions through my job at the NLRB. I understood the educational community, and I was well-known as being against the Vietnam War."
Schroeder didn't agonize much about getting into the race "because people thought I would surely lose," she recalls. When, instead, she overcame the Nixon landslide to squeak in with 52 percent of the vote, Schroeder got a phone call from then Congresswoman Bella Abzug. "[She] said, 'Well, congratulations...but I hear you have a husband and two children,' " Schroeder later reported. "I said, 'Yeah, [the kids] are 2 and 6.' She said, 'I don't think you can do the job.' I thought, 'AAAAUGH, If she doesn't think I can do it, what am I doing?' "
Fifteen years later Schroeder is the senior woman in Congress, with a strong record as both a social liberal and a fiscal conservative—last year outranking even Jack Kemp on the scorecard kept by the penny-pinching National Taxpayers Union. She has used her seat on the House Armed Services Committee to promote arms control and trim the deficit-bloating military budget. She has written ground-breaking legislation on maternity and paternity leave and held fast in favor of reproductive rights and the ERA. Even her critics acknowledge that Schroeder has paid her dues. "She's a schemer, but she makes it more effective by being a hard worker," says James D. "Mike" McKevitt, the Republican she defeated in 1972. "If anyone has fire in her belly, it's Pat."
In her home district, in fact, Schroeder is considered so unbeatable that her token Republican opponents virtually concede before Election Day. Last time out she collected 68 percent of the vote. Ironically, each electoral love-in only lends credence to the notion that Schroeder might not survive the rough-and-tumble of a national race. Doing without speech-writers, she tends to improvise from her own hastily scrawled notes—a freewheeling approach that could well lead to gaffes during a tough campaign. "Her flip comments put a lot of people off," says McKevitt. "She's so accustomed to being surrounded by friendlies that she feels she can say just about anything."
Schroeder can be circumspect when it comes to her husband's professional activities. A partner in the Washington law firm of Kaplan Russin & Vecchi—whose foreign clients include Tadiran, an Israeli electronics conglomerate—Jim Schroeder is currently on the Justice Department's list of registered foreign business agents. According to an Associate Press report based on Justice Department records, he and his firm tried to secure a defense contract for Tadiran in 1983. They failed, though Tadiran, which uses several lobbyists, has landed millions of dollars worth of Pentagon business.
Jim Schroeder says he is no longer a lobbyist and that he instructed his secretary last May to have his name taken off the list. No one in Pat Schroeder's office seems willing to address the question directly. The Congresswoman herself, through an aide, would say only "lobbying is a legitimate profession.... Many congressional spouses act as lobbyists. Over the years [we've] released our tax returns and financial disclosures to the press to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest." Even if the cause is only pre-race jitters, such apparent equivocation raises the question of how well Schroeder can take the heat.
First, though, she must decide whether she wants to get into the kitchen. So far, says her aide, Dan Buck, "fund-raising results are far higher than we expected." And though key endorsements like Hart's are conspicuously lacking (he has come out for Mario Cuomo, who says he's not running), the public response to Schroeder has been positive, if not overwhelming. The feeling seems to be that she is as qualified as any of the seven declared male Democratic candidates and that a woman's face would brighten the race. But Pat Schroeder has never been one for tokenism. "The only reason to run is to really go out and win," she says. Those who know her well believe the fires of her ambition are stoked; the big question now, they believe, is not whether Pat Schroeder will run for President, but when.
- David Chandler.
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