A Tale of Two Cities: U.s. Senator Paula Hawkins and Homebody Hubby Gene

UPDATED 04/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

When the roll-call bell rings, she runs to the Senate Chamber like a startled doe. "At first the police used to stop me," says Paula Hawkins, 54, the junior senator from Florida. "They thought someone was chasing me."

The savvy, acerbic brunette admits she is "hyper." And clearly she is on the move. One of 16 freshman Republicans swept into the Senate in the Reagan landslide, Hawkins is a conservative—anti-ERA and anti-abortion. She aims to be point lady in the Administration's assault on alleged abuses in medical benefit programs, fraud in food stamp distribution and overspending in CETA and other sacred cows of labor. Though she has not had time to carve much of a path in the Senate, her GOP superiors have high expectations. Says Majority Leader Howard Baker: "With her energy and talent, she'll be effective."

In any case, she isn't timid. To wit, she recently arranged a working lunch with Edward Kennedy to discuss future hearings on the National Cancer Institute and the Department of Education before a labor subcommittee she chairs. When a Kennedy aide phoned to say that the Massachusetts senator was expecting her in his office, she demurred. "I'm the chairman," she said. "Tell him to come here." Ted did, and later admitted he was "impressed."

Female senators are still a rare species. There have been only 15 since 1922, when Georgia's Rebecca Felton became the first woman to sit in the upper house (she also served the shortest term—38 days). Almost all have got to Capitol Hill by appointment or special election to serve out unexpired terms, often as widows (Muriel Humphrey, Maurine Neuberger, Rose Long) or through family connections (Margaret Chase Smith was the widow of a congressman; Nancy Kassebaum, the other woman currently in the Senate, is the daughter of Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential candidate). Paula Hawkins is the only woman without a political family connection to reach the Senate in a regular election.

Her 57-year-old businessman husband, Gene, supports her political ambitions. He has even attended a luncheon of the Senate Wives' Club, and says he'll "go again—but not often." Gene is an asset, Paula proclaims. "There are a lot of people who don't know how to approach a woman senator, so they feel more comfortable with my husband." But Gene doesn't recommend the political spouse role for many men. "If you suspect that your wife's running for office would endanger the marriage, don't allow it," he advises. But for the Hawkinses, both devout Mormons, there was no danger. "A strong religious underpinning anchors our family," says Gene.

Some strains are avoided by the fact that Gene spends little time in Washington, where he is clearly the No. 2 Hawkins. At home in Winter Park, Florida, an Orlando exurb stippled with $300,000 houses, he is part owner and president of Hutto-Hawkins-Perego, Inc., a manufacturers' representative for firms making electronics components. While not a millionaire in either assets or income, he says his pay "far exceeds" Paula's $60,662.50 Senate salary. He rarely visits Washington, where Paula rents a two-bedroom apartment in the Watergate complex. They always weekend together in Winter Park. She designed everything in their four-bedroom lakeside place, right down to the stained glass windows and the shell-shaped swimming pool.

The couple's two-career, two-city life requires explanation only in D.C. Capitol elevator operators sometimes try to bar Paula from the special lifts reserved for senators, and when the Hawkinses are introduced at gatherings, most people reach first for Gene's hand. He doesn't mind. "I had a lot of reservations about Paula running for office," he admits, "but ego was never one of them." The senator agrees: "Gene is so secure, he delights in the accomplishments of either of us." He overcame his initial objections to her Senate candidacy—the unsettling "turbulence" of her previous political career and the feeling that she had "done enough"—and gave her his blessing and financial backing.

The pair met as teenagers in a Mormon youth program in Atlanta. Paula's mother was Gene's Sunday school teacher. The son of a house painter who died when he was 2 years old, he was impressed by Paula's "big brown eyes." The two began to date about the time Gene graduated from technical high school, but World War II put the budding romance on hold.

Gene was drafted into the Army and shipped out to the Pacific. Paula's father, a Navy chief warrant officer, went to sea, so her mother took Paula, her two sisters and brother to their grandmother's home in Logan, Utah for the duration. Gene's courtship continued by mail, although Paula admits she had "lots of beaus. I got engaged every year. That was fun."

Still, Gene persisted. After the war, he stopped in Logan on his way home. Later, while he was at Georgia Tech and she at Utah State, he came to see her often. "He'd ride the train to Utah," she recalls. "Such perseverance." On Valentine's Day 1947, her senior year, he mailed her an engagement ring. She immediately dropped out of college, where she had been dithering over a major (she never got a degree), and joined him at the altar. Marriage was an eye-opener. "I thought he was rich, but he wasn't," Paula laughs. "He told me he wed me because he couldn't afford another trip West."

They moved into Gene's mother's house in Atlanta and Paula worked as a stenographer while he finished up at Georgia Tech. Then he got a job as a geophysical engineer, and they began moving every few months. "It was too demanding," admits Gene, who eventually decided to go back to Georgia to get a master's in electrical engineering. Again, he says, "Paula made it all possible."

In 1955 the Hawkinses moved to Maitland, Fla. Gene started as a salesman for the firm he now owns. Paula got into politics when she registered to vote in the overwhelmingly Democratic state. "The lady asked what party I belonged to," she says. "What did I know? I told her to put me down as a Taft Republican." Gene, then a Democrat (he has since switched), was amazed. "You're a Republican?" he asked. "Doesn't matter," the registrar said to Paula. "You won't be able to vote in this state except in the general elections." She was right. "I think it was 1966," Paula observes, "before we got GOP candidates to run on a local level."

Paula and Gene raised a family: Genean, now 31 and the mother of four; Kevin, 27, a CPA and father of two; and Kelley, 19, a student at the University of Florida. But she also led a community fight to replace septic tanks with a sewage system in Maitland. When the city council brushed off her group, whose concern with sewage led them to be called "the Dirty Dozen," it found a mayoral candidate of its own liking. He won, and Maitland dug sewers.

Paula got statewide attention as a consumer advocate after she won a seat on the Public Service Commission in 1972 and spent seven years battling telephone and utility rate increases. Along the way, however, she lost races for the state legislature, lieutenant governor and, in 1974, for the U.S. Senate. Her victory last November (she won 51 percent of the vote) was due as much to a split among the state's Democrats after a bitter primary as to Reagan's coattails.

The Hawkinses have had their own spats—and friends agree that the loudest voice is usually hers. Paula admits she tends to be "forceful about things." But that, she says, stems from a lesson learned at 14, when she got an ulcer from being too forgiving. "I cured the ulcer," she says. "Now I give them."

But not to Gene. During the week, when Paula is in Washington, he eats out often, leaves the laundry to the once-a-week maid and spends a lot of time in Orlando with his son and grandchildren. Paula spends 10 hours a day in her Senate office and has to toil evenings at constituent receptions.

On weekends in Winter Park, she is happy to throw a load in the washer and take on the kitchen chores. She is, Gene says, "the best cook in the U.S. Senate." One of the spices in the Hawkins marriage, evidently, is plain proximity. Says Gene, "We just like being together."

GARRY CLIFFORD

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