Voice of Experience

updated 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/04/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

DURING A LATE-NIGHT NEGOTIATING session on Capitol Hill last March, bleary-eyed lawmakers were lost in a blizzard of numbers as they struggled to put together Bill Clinton's $1.5 trillion budget. "We were at the number-crunching stage of the process, deep into the math," recalls Michigan Democrat Dale Kildee. "All of a sudden, in the middle of it, this lady politely but bluntly asks, 'How will this affect the people?' All the heads in the room turned. And there was this remarkable silence. People? We were all rattling around in the numbers, and she wanted to know about people. I tell you, it refocused us."

The lady was California's Rep. Lynn Woolsey, and shaking up veterans on Capitol Hill is something she has been doing since January, when she became the first former welfare mother in Congress. After only seven months in office, Woolsey, 55, has more clout than many members with more seniority. This summer, for example, she was one of just five freshmen on the special House-Senate conference committee that painfully pounded out a federal budget. While there, she was able to help protect the very social programs that saved her family 25 years ago, when, after a divorce, she was forced to go on welfare for three years to support three small children, using direct payments for her children and food stamps. And though first-termers don't usually write laws, the new budget contains a measure she wrote cracking down on deadbeat dads. "Now if you don't make child-support payments," she notes, "it goes on your credit record."

She isn't stopping there. Next, Woolsey will help Clinton on his long-awaited reform of the welfare system. Says Bruce Reed, a While House aide working on the program: "Woolsey will carry a lot of weight in the coming debate." It is a challenge she embraces. "My background is the reason I will be able to carry out the things I promised to the voters," she says. "I've walked my talk."

But in the beginning, Woolsey was headed down a different road. In 1962 she left the University of Washington before graduating to marry the man she helped through college. The couple then moved to San Francisco, and Lynn's husband became a successful stockbroker. She stayed at home and gave birth to three children in five years—Joe, now 31, Ed, 29, and Amy, 26. The family settled into what she calls a "Leave It to Beaver existence" in Sleepy Hollow, a bedroom community in affluent Marin County. But that life was shattered in 1966 when her husband began suffering from the psychological problems that cost him his job and then destroyed the marriage. "I was abandoned," says Woolsey, who says that her husband was unable to support the family.

So she sold their four-bedroom house just two weeks before it was to be foreclosed, ending up with $300, the washer and the dryer. Desperate for work, Woolsey lied to land a $580-a-month secretarial job, saying she was happily married and had a live-in housekeeper. She turned to welfare to help pay for health care and food stamps to feed her kids, an experience that politicized her. "I became more left of center about the time of my divorce," she says. "I really believe that government is supposed to be in business for people who need assistance."

Like many women on welfare who also work, Lynn was able to become financially stable by getting married again. In 1971 she met and wed David Woolsey, a marketing consultant, who brought a son from a previous marriage, Michael, now 30, into the family. They moved to comfortable Petaluma, Calif., and Lynn eventually became human-resources director for a local telephone systems company, earned a business degree from the University of San Francisco and in 1980 started her own employment agency. In 1984, Woolsey launched her political career by winning election to the Petaluma city council. She and her husband separated in 1988.

Last year, after Rep. Barbara Boxer announced her bid for the Senate, Woolsey decided to run for the open seat. California's sixth district seems in many ways so small-town perfect that the area was once featured in campaign commercials for Ronald Reagan. Woolsey, running on a platform that called for programs to train people for jobs that pay a "living wage," won easily.

Since landing in Washington, Woolsey has lived in a basement apartment in the District in the home of family friends. As for her social life, she ruefully notes that dates are "few and far between," although flowers from an unidentified admirer adorned her office recently. The busy Woolsey does find time for recreation. She was among the handful of congresswomen who demanded that the previously all-male Capitol Hill gym offer facilities for women, and after long days of negotiation she keeps in shape by working out with a Thighmaster. Earlier this year she became the first woman to play on the congressional basketball team, though her performance didn't match her skills as a legislator. "I didn't score any points," she says with a laugh. "But I didn't foul, either."

PETER MEYER in Washington and LAIRD HARRISON in Petaluma

From Our Partners