Representative Anne Northup: Washington’s Working Catholic Mom


June 1, 2000

Congresswoman Anne Meagher Northup knew about personal responsibility when she was a 20-year-old student at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. It meant that she, not her father, would pay for her bus ticket back home for Christmas. It meant that if she wanted to join her nine sisters and one brother at home in Louisville, Kentucky, she couldn’t buy new clothes.

With maturation, personal responsibility meant leaving a job at Ford Motor Co. to stay at home and raise six children. It meant keeping house and cooking dinner while her husband tried to launch an electronics business. It meant making her kids’ clothes and feeding them big breakfasts before trips to the pool so that they didn’t spend money at the snack bar. “We sacrificed for the pool,” Northup says. “Eating was a luxury.”

Now, the 52-year-old Catholic, a second-term Republican, expects nothing less of her own children, who range in age from 18 to 28. She doesn’t want them to dip into her bank account whenever they get into trouble, but she will offer them her support. Their own consciences decide whether they attend Mass at college, but she makes the rules when they come home. The same holds true when they bring their friends home for the Kentucky Derby. “They’re all welcome, but tell them we go to church on Sunday morning,” Northup will tell her children. “That’s what we all do in our house.”

Putting the Poor to Work

The values she has tried to instill in her children are the same ones that guide her actions in Congress. How do we help the poor? Give them responsibility; give them work, not a government check. She supports programs such as those at Canaan Missionary Baptist in Louisville, where the slogan is “Lifting others as we lift ourselves.” One of the largest African-American churches in the state, Canaan Missionary helps distressed families move from poverty to prosperity through job training, computer courses, and adult education programs, explains Pastor Walter Malone Jr., who credits Northup with obtaining federal money for his facilities. “We would still be doing many of the things we’re doing, but without her support, it would be much harder.”

Take charge of a bad financial situation; don’t just sit back and accept it, Northup demands. That’s the message she wants to hear from the Catholic bishops, whom she thinks put too much responsibility on the wealthy to help the poor. “The only way out of poverty is work,” Northup says. “I don’t hear from the pulpit that side of it. I hear almost a condemnation of the rich because there are people that are poor.” She feels similarly toward the Democrats’ ideology: “This isn’t just a political difference, it’s what works.”

Child poverty, in particular, is a problem that needs to be addressed with responsibility, though some solutions sound outlandish to Northup. “I hope we don’t believe we can tell the poor not to have children,” she says matter-of-factly.

Northup consistently votes against abortion. (She supports family planning funds but not if that money is linked to organizations that perform or promote abortions).

When she talks about responsible parenting, she is addressing the teenage population. A 16-year-old girl who has a baby will almost guarantee poverty for both, she says, but society doesn’t stress this message enough. As children grow up, they should hear: “Unmarried sex is wrong,” “Having children outside of marriage is wrong—if you love children you wouldn’t do that,” and “It takes a mother and a father.”

Of course, some young girls still will find themselves pregnant. “Yes, mistakes happen,” Northup says, her firm voice sounding more motherly. “And I worry every day that one of my own children will make that mistake… but I need to make sure they understand that I would never help [one of them] to get an abortion.”

Unabashedly Pro-Life

She says no to abortion, no to teenage marriage, and yes to adoption—a very personal conviction. Before Northup became involved in politics, she worked with a women’s organization that supported Catholic Charities by helping unwed mothers and their babies. Although many couples adopted those babies, Northup noticed that adoptions of biracial children almost never took place. “I was amazed at that,” she says. “It still does amaze me.”

When Northup had trouble conceiving a third baby, she and her husband, Woody, decided to adopt a biracial child. Though Northup gave birth to two more babies, she adopted a second biracial child between the pregnancies. A picture of her two daughters and four sons, now grown up, is one of the first things people see when they sit down in the waiting area of Northup’s office.

Catholic supporters immediately note Northup’s dedication to adoption and pro-life issues. Her opposition to abortion is founded in her faith, and it is something she shares with her 52-year-old husband, Woody. “We believe life starts out at conception,” he says. “In my opinion, the first obligation of any society is to protect the life within it.”

The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that tries to increase the number of women in public office who oppose abortion, has endorsed Northup in the past and has already endorsed her for the coming race in November. “I can’t say enough about her,” says Jennifer Bingham, executive director of the group. Her organization, which counters the pro-abortion Emily’s List, found that six of the 67 women in Congress oppose abortion—less than nine percent. None of those women is in the Senate.

Northup doesn’t think that percentage is representative of the nation. Many women who feel abortion is wrong—including “plenty” in her district, she says—are too busy with their families to run for office. “A lot of the pro-life women, for periods, are not on the career track,” Northup says. “It’s hard to be a mom and serve in Congress when your children are young.”

Many close to Northup say her views on abortion are very clear, but they point out that it’s not her platform issue. In her district, which leans Democratic, a very vocal position against abortion could hurt her, so she tends to keep those feelings quiet. “I think she is staying lower-profile,” says Robert Adelberg, a former Republican chairman of her district. “That’s the politician in her when she’s just low-keying that.”

Even Northup’s chief of staff, who calls her “un-abashedly pro-life,” quickly points out that she is involved in other issues as well. A Northup Web page biography describes her as “an outspoken proponent for meaningful health care reform” and “an aggressive advocate for education reform.” It briefly mentions her involvement with the Pro-Life Caucus.

Church Influence

Northup believes the death penalty is a deterrent to serious crime, a view not shared by the Catholic Church. She doesn’t recognize the death penalty as a right-to-life issue, specifically when criminals choose their crimes. “You have made a choice that you are going to forego your right to life.”

As far as other Catholic positions go, Northup varies. School choice and the elimination of the marriage tax penalty—items on Catholic Alliance’s 2000 legislative agenda—are issues she supports. Other matters are not so easy to define:

  • Prayer in public schools: Northup generally feels that public schools have gone too far in stripping all references to God. She calls nondenominational prayers at football games, graduation ceremonies, or over a school intercom system “entirely appropriate.” These prayers should be uniform throughout the school—this way, the responsibility to craft a prayer does not fall on the teacher. Many teachers are not trained in nondenominational prayer and could risk offending their students.
  • Human rights violations in China: “I have not felt that this administration has put the right amount of pressure on the Chinese to honor human rights and civil rights,” Northup says. However, she doesn’t think the United States should punish China by scaling back trade. With trade, China will see more economic growth, people’s lives will improve, and the society will demand change. “As soon as they get beyond having enough to eat and shelter, they start thinking about quality-of-life issues.”
  • Minimum wage: Northup, known as a friend to the business community, is opposed to raising the minimum wage. She argues that most minimum-wage jobs exist for part-time workers and teenagers. Many times, she says, those jobs are held by people who require training and flexible work schedules; the tradeoff is a lower wage. The Catholic Conference of Kentucky, the bishops’ policy arm, feels a higher minimum wage is necessary to pull up poor, low-wage workers. “She has not understood the significance of that, and she has not been willing to embrace that,” says Jane Chiles, executive director of the conference. The conference does not endorse candidates.

People might not immediately identify Northup as one of the House’s Catholic members, explains Larry Cirignano, communications director for Catholic Alliance. He says she is better known as a “pro-life woman” than a Catholic. “She’s not a Henry Hyde or a Chris Smith,” Cirignano says, referring to two well-known Catholic members of Congress. “She’s just solid.”

Louisville friends talk about her “strong values and morals” and say that she comes from a “good family.” She grew up in a household where her parents, Floy and Jim Meagher, went to Mass daily and prayed the rosary with the family. She describes her father as “somebody who loves the United States, Notre Dame, and the Church. He’s infectious about it.” Her father is a Notre Dame alumnus, and her mother graduated from St. Mary’s College. When the family went on trips to Notre Dame, they lit candles at the grotto. Eventually, Northup and all but two of her ten siblings would go to Notre Dame or St. Mary’s. When it came time to marry, Northup says it was important to her to wed a Catholic. She met Woody, originally from Richmond, Virginia, while she was at St. Mary’s studying business and economics— Woody was at Notre Dame studying English. The couple, who started dating seriously when they were both abroad in Europe, was married 31 years in April.

She and Woody live in Louisville across the street from their parish, Church of the Holy Spirit. Their close proximity has made them regular witnesses to the city’s weddings and first communions. “It’s almost like your neighbor is the Catholic Church,” Northup says.

At Saturday evening Masses, Northup performs a role that has more responsibility than the typical eucharistic minister, explains her pastor, Thomas Boland. Her duties require her to coordinate the distribution of the cup, which means she must arrive ahead of time to prepare the wine and stay after Mass to clean the sacred vessels. Her husband recently completed a fund-raiser to expand and improve the church’s facilities, and he is involved in the archbishop’s annual drive.

“We really love the practice of our religion,” Northup says. “The broad themes of religious training are what I believe in a lot. Life is about service.”

Her mother, who at 77 still volunteers for Meals on Wheels, and her father, a former Rotary Club president, taught her to be generous with her time, Woody says. Her father, who used to be a Louisville precinct captain, showed her how service and politics overlap.

Working-Mom Challenges

Before she became a full-time politician, Northup worked as a high school math teacher and a manager at Ford. While an at-home mom, she occasionally worked as a substitute teacher and volunteered for President Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. In the mid-1980s, she took a job as an aide for a state representative. Soon after, a seat in the state House opened up, and she ran for the legislature. Northup served five consecutive terms between 1987 and 1996 before she left for the U.S. House. “She’s been fascinated by politics her whole life,” Woody says. “Election Day for her is like Christmas for little kids!’

When Northup started her political career as an aide, her youngest child was four years old. She perceived the aide position as part-time work and thought she would have enough time for home responsibilities. “I think when I first started I thought I could be Supermom,” she says.

Woody thought differently. He knew his motivated wife would end up spending more hours than planned in the state capital and less time at home. At the same time, he had his start-up business to run, an electronics company that specializes in motorcycle sound systems. “It wasn’t like I started staying home,” he says. “She didn’t make enough money.”

Babysitters helped lighten the load, and as the children grew older, Baptist seminary students stayed with the kids after school. Woody took on new home responsibilities, such as buying groceries. “It certainly affected my view of married life. I had to reset all my ideas of what married life was,” Woody says. “It took me a couple years to get used to it.”

Now, on Saturdays, the couple makes a list of everything that needs to be done and divides up the chores. “It’s stressful, two parents working and mom being out of town,” says Northup, who as congresswoman spends many of her weeks in Washington and her weekends at home. “It wouldn’t be possible if my husband wasn’t who he was.”

The Northups still have one son at home who just graduated from high school and one daughter in college. The other four children, who went to both Catholic and non-Catholic colleges, have graduated. “It would have been easy for Anne to just stay home and raise a family, but she had more to do,” says Catherine Smith, a friend of Northup’s who has known her more than 20 years.

With Northup’s schedule so full, some relationships have been particularly difficult to maintain. Recently, she found out that a friend’s father was dying. The news caught her off-guard. Before she could get home to visit her friend, the father had already passed away. But, Northup says, it’s hard to know when a friend’s father is sick or when someone’s daughter isn’t doing well in school when you can’t make regular trips to the supermarket or PTA meetings. “I miss it,” Northup says. “It’s very sustaining that network—it’s what we share.”

Women on the Hill

Meanwhile, she says she hasn’t found camaraderie with other women on Capitol Hill. To begin with, the split between Republicans and Democrats causes tension among the elected women. “We’re divided across the lines,” she says. In addition, many of the Republican, pro-choice women are taken in by the national women organizations, which Northup describes as liberal. She says they tell America, “‘If you’re for women, you think like us! Men wouldn’t do that. We give them the liberty to be different, to be diverse.”

She sees a problem when female representatives are consumed with women’s issues. “If women’s rights and legislation is what you want to be elected for, it might be why women are not elected. You have to be just as sensitive to minorities and males.”

Such philosophical differences among women in her party cause constant arguments among the Republicans, she says, even for petty reasons. She notes that some of the women in her party resist Speaker J. Dennis Hastert’s coaching metaphors, claiming they alienate women. Northup feels differently about his sports vocabulary. “I think it goes over great. I think the American people love that,” she says, pointing out that both men and women play sports. Why shouldn’t Hastert, a former wrestling coach, use examples from his life? Women wouldn’t like it if their male colleagues told them not to use parenting metaphors, she says. “I think women need to be careful not to do the same thing.”

Northup even avoids the Women’s Caucus, which includes all but three of the House’s 58 women representatives. “I’ve thought about joining just because I didn’t want to make it an issue,” she says. “That’s a caucus where Democratic women dominate. It gives them a way to think all women [think like they do]. I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Her Female Influence

Instead, Northup involves herself in matters she considers important, such as those facing her Appropriations Committee. Her membership is notable because Appropriations—which authorizes expenditures of federal money—is considered one of the more powerful committees in Congress.

Illinois Congressman John Edward Porter, chairman for an Appropriations subcommittee, said he has never seen such innovation, interest, and preparation in a member in his almost 20 years on the subcommittee. Together, they work on labor, health, and education issues. “The enthusiasm is just evident,” Porter says. “She never sits back and quietly asks a question. She’s into it.”

When Northup came to Washington, she was one of two first-term members to be rewarded with a seat on the committee. Members with influence on Appropriations have the ability to attract campaign fund-raising dollars, one of the reasons her party may have placed her in the seat. Money can help in tight elections, and both of Northup’s races have been close.

Northup is attempting to boost her influence in the House. After the next election, if the Republicans keep control of the House and Northup upholds her seat, she says she is interested in running for secretary of the House Republican Conference. The conference crafts the Republican message for its members. Originally, Northup wanted to be the conference’s next vice chair, which would have made her the highest-ranking GOP woman in the House. She decided to ditch that effort and run for the secretary position after Deborah Pryce, a representative from Ohio, said she would pursue the vice chair position. Northup deferred to her because Pryce is a more senior member of Congress. Northup also missed out on the opportunity to be vice chair in 1998, when she lost the spot to Florida Rep. Tillie Fowler.

Before Northup can advance her career in the House, she needs to be reelected in Democratic-leaning Louisville, Kentucky’s third district. Her four years in Congress have not given her the confidence to declare herself the inevitable winner in November. In her first election against a one-term incumbent, she won 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent—a difference of only 1,299 votes. In the second race, she did just slightly better, winning by about 52 percent of the vote. Robert Adelberg, the former Republican chairman for the district, called those victories “landslides” in a district with such liberal tendencies.

Some say Northup actually was punished in her second election for speaking out against President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Northup accused women’s groups of looking the other way when Clinton used his position to take advantage of his former intern; she said they would have attacked a Republican who did something similar. The tactic may not have played well at home. Her district, which has a large number of Catholics, African Americans, and blue-collar workers, twice helped elect Clinton to office.

Northup, one of the House’s top fundraisers, expects another tough race. Even her supporters admit that Eleanor Jordan, Northup’s Democratic opponent who has the endorsement of Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton, could be hard to beat. Northup calls Jordan, who is a state House representative, “very, very liberal.” Jordan’s campaign literature describes Northup as “out of touch with the mainstream in the third congressional district, voting 100 percent with Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.” (Not exactly—the Christian Coalition says the two take opposing views on some issues.) Jordan also refers to Northup as “anti-choice in a pro-choice district.”

Christopher Smith, a Catholic House representative from New Jersey, knows that Northup’s conservative views make her vulnerable. “It’s precisely because of her moral values that she’s being targeted. She’s just a good person,” Smith says. “We need to have her back.”

If the voters want her back, the next responsibility is theirs. Whatever the case, Northup’s husband says his wife isn’t going to change herself to win. She will not beg for the job, because her life is about more than being elected. “For a while, we’re going to do this,” Woody says. “This isn’t going to last forever.”


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