Photo by Stefan Radtke
On Monday, December 9 — a gray and rainy day that kicked off a week of historic DC drama as House Democrats unveiled articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump — I’m waiting for Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D, NY-17/Westchester and Rockland) in her spacious but workmanlike office in a nondescript White Plains building.
Located less than four miles from her gracious 1927 Tudor (in the same Harrison neighborhood where I reside), the office sports gray industrial carpeting, a black-and-glass wall unit, and a pair of cherry-red couches. A shovel leans against an AC unit, and a tired-looking Cookie Monster doll is propped up in a corner — a keepsake of the time Lowey appeared at a congressional hearing accompanied by life-size Sesame Street characters to press for continued federal funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The congresswoman, clad in black pants and top with a cream-and-black nubby jacket, enters with her trademark bright smile. Born into a middle-class Bronx family as Nita Sue Melnikoff (her father was a CPA, her mother “president of every nonprofit organization”), she distinguished herself early on as a leader who got things done, first as president of her sixth-grade class and later as president of the Bronx High School of Science. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she organized regular Friday-night Shabbat services for the Jewish students who until then had to attend compulsory Christian chapel.
She continued to be active in community service as the PTA president of PS 178 The Holliswood School in Queens, the school her kids attended, getting the policy that separated students into classes according to ability (the so-called “smart” and “dumb” classes) changed so that there was a mixture of children of all abilities in every class. “This way, no one grew up thinking they were dumb,” she says.
Reflecting on her tendency to roll up her sleeves and help others, Lowey says, “There are some people, perfectly pleasant people, who see a problem and just move on and say, ‘Let someone else handle it.’ There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always been the kind of person that if you see a problem, you have to do something about it.”
That eventually led her to a position as assistant secretary of state for New York. It was in 1988 that Lowey was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, ultimately winding up among the Democratic leadership in 2001 and 2002 as the first woman and the first New Yorker to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the 113th Congress, Lowey was selected by her colleagues to be the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, becoming the first woman named to lead either party while serving on it. She became its chairwoman as of the 116th Congress, making Lowey the first woman to chair the massively powerful committee. (Lowey also serves as chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.)
As of this writing, more than a handful of people have thrown their hats into the ring for the coveted seat she announced back in October that she was retiring from. When asked for thoughts about the aspirants, Lowey demurs: “I may have thoughts, but I’m not going to get involved in the race.” She does, however, adopt a far more diplomatic position by saying that whoever her successor is should be “somebody who is really committed to helping people and making this a better world.”
Though Lowey has broken multiple glass ceilings, it’s not necessarily those unprecedented achievements in which the 82-year-old takes the greatest pride. “I’m proud of the work I do in Washington, of course, but I am particularly proud of what I do in the district,” she comments. “We have thousands of important cases. The issues I work on are in the forefront because someone usually brings them to my attention.”
She is particularly proud of legislation she authored to require common-sense, clear allergy information on food labels and the establishment of the .08 blood alcohol content that now constitutes impaired driving. She also is proud of her efforts to increase gender equity in federal medical research. “The National Institute of Health was doing many studies on men and not women,” she notes.
Another big priority for her has been girls’ education internationally. “I don’t know that I am going to be able to resolve it,” she says, “but I continue to work on it because if you invest in education, you have more civilized communities. You can’t always prevent wars, but it’s an important step in the right direction.”
The landscape has changed dramatically since Lowey was first elected to Congress as one of only 20 women. Currently, nearly one-fourth of Congress is female, the largest and most diverse representation in the body’s history. Obviously, such a sweeping reconfiguration comes with changes. “There is more focus on the concerns and values of women now,” says Lowey. “Women play an important role, and especially having the young women who were elected in the last election is very, very exciting to me; you get a different perspective. But,” she adds, “I would also say that the young men who’ve come to Congress are very, very enthusiastic. It’s a great class.”
“I have a feeling I’ll still be able to solve problems for people if I hear of some indignity or some challenges in a community.”
As to what caused the 2018 election to result in more women than ever before in Congress, she says, “I think the behavior of the president was a major force encouraging women to run. His behavior, I can say it mildly, was inappropriate; his language is inappropriate. I’ll leave it at that.” The congresswoman, who joined a women’s march the day after Trump was sworn in, adds that she owns her own pussyhat, given to her by a constituent.
Some pundits have opined that it is the same newly minted class of young, vigorous, far-left-of-center candidates that is not-so-gently pushing out the more centrist old guard of the party, through things like real or threatened primary challenges, that has resulted in the impending retirement of politicians like Lowey. Yet the 32-year congressional veteran isn’t taking the bait. “It was time to retire, at the top of my career, when I was privileged to be elected head of the House Appropriations Committee and in charge of a $1.3 trillion budget,” she says. “Members of Congress are very talented people, but I have a feeling I’ll still be able to solve problems for people if I hear of some indignity or some challenges in a community.”
Of course, there will be some parts of her job that she’ll be happy to leave behind. “I always like when we can work together in a nonpartisan way,” she says. “It’s been very frustrating to me that this president is very partisan and really not willing to work in a nonpartisan way. But as head of Appropriations, I’ve been able to work out some important challenges and work together in a bipartisan way.”
Lowey’s candor about the 45th president leads one to wonder what her feelings are regarding the passage of two articles of impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives. “I think, based on the information that was uncovered during the impeachment proceedings, that the president sought foreign assistance to influence the 2020 presidential election and went to great lengths to obstruct Congress during the investigations,” she says. “That’s why I, and a clear majority of my colleagues in the House, voted to impeach him. Now the Majority in the Senate needs to stop following the party line and have a serious trial,” she continues. “But I think, based upon my review of the charges, the president’s actions were improper and deserving of the action that is currently taking place.”
As to the current crop of Democratic hopefuls for the 2020 presidential election, Lowey will say only that “at this point, it seems Vice President Biden has the best opportunity.” When pressed further about who she thinks will be taking the oath of office in January 2021, she confesses to the obvious, saying, “I do hope it’s a Democrat.”
Of course, the real elephant — or, more appropriately, donkey — in the room involves when the U.S. will finally see its first female president. To this, Lowey professes no oracular insights yet does muse: “Maybe Nancy Pelosi will be the next president of the United States. I think she is doing a great job as Speaker…and I think she’d be an outstanding president.”
Speaker Pelosi is a big fan of Lowey’s, too, calling her a “master legislator whose values-based leadership has touched countless lives around the world. She has earned the respect of all our colleagues as a leader who is both gracious and tenacious, who seeks always to find common ground where she can and stands her ground where she can’t.”
After retirement, Lowey looks forward to spending more time with her husband, their three grown children, and their eight grandchildren, pursuing such pastimes as “swimming at the Y with the ladies, walking, reading, traveling, and charity work.” Her best advice for those looking to get involved in politics is to “get involved in your community. You are very fortunate,” she says. “You live here in the United States of America, so you have the responsibility to continue to make life better for the next generation. So, when you see a problem, don’t just walk on — do something about it.”
Laurie Yarnell is a former features editor for WM. She writes frequently about Westchester notables, including Joseph Abboud, Georgina Bloomberg, and Hank Azaria.