Connecticut U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro pens book on ‘social safety net’
New Haven Register
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro has built her career on fighting for those who, without government help, are in danger of losing the chance at a decent life. In her new book, “The Least Among Us: Waging the Battle for the Vulnerable,” she tells the stories of those fights, which she has undertaken over 26 years as U.S. representative from Connecticut’s 3rd District and in previous positions as chief of staff for fellow Democrats Mayor Frank Logue and U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd and the first executive director of EMILY’s List, which supports pro-choice Democratic women in their election campaigns.
DeLauro, 74, continually refers to the “social safety net” that she sees as the undergirding of the American dream: “Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and nutrition programs, unemployment insurance, child tax credits and the Earned Income Tax Credit … these are all areas that I talk about in the book,” she said recently in her Church Street campaign office.
Her story begins in Wooster Square, the Italian-American neighborhood where her late father, Ted, an immigrant, and mother, Luisa, a first-generation American, heard the hard-luck stories of their neighbors and did whatever they could to help them.
“It’s really what I learned from my parents,” DeLauro said. “Our kitchen, our kitchen table was a place where people could come and get help.” Both her parents served as New Haven aldermen. “That’s the lesson that I learned: Government is supposed to help people, particularly in a time of need,” she said.
The other event that helped form DeLauro’s drive to lift up the vulnerable was a 1957 fire in a Franklin Street dress shop. A locked fire escape and blocked exits trapped people inside, killing 15 women, including a friend’s mother, who was later identified by her shoes. “She ran back to get her pocketbook and couldn’t get out of the building,” DeLauro said.
“It was a disaster, and it happened down the street from my house,” DeLauro writes. “It is impossible to be an eyewitness to events like that and not be touched by the gravity of our responsibility to one another.”
Another formative experience for DeLauro was meeting her mother, now 103, every day after school at a garment factory on State Street.
“She did it because she wanted me to see what these working conditions were and she wanted me to get an education, to take advantage of an education, so I wouldn’t have to do this work,” she said.
“It’s piece work. … You get the needle in your finger, you didn’t get a tetanus shot. … If you got blood on a garment, you didn’t get paid. It’s not the 26 years I’ve spent in the House of Representatives but it’s about the values that I was taught growing up in an Italian Catholic family” that have formed her governing philosophy, she said.
DeLauro’s father, who worked as a court interpreter for Italian immigrants — and advocated for teaching Italian in the public schools — and her mother “were consumed with my getting an education,” said DeLauro, who attended Lauralton Hall, Marymount College, including a junior year at the London School of Economics, and Columbia University.
Her schooling didn’t come without some tension with her father, however, DeLauro said. “I was not coming home every weekend. I was not coming home for Sunday dinner all the time. … My father had a difficult time dealing with the whole issue of expanding horizons, new vistas, new experiences.”
But Ted DeLauro also instilled in his daughter that “you have responsibility for others, you have a social responsibility, you have a moral responsibility for others, particularly in a time of need, and that is the social safety net.”
It is government, she contends, that has kept bottom line-driven businesses from overworking employees, selling spoiled meat, hiring children and other abuses. “They were forced into greater accountability and social concern by the legitimate actions of a democratic government,” she writes. “In other words, if we depend on goodwill, we are all screwed.”
Programs to help the powerless were always bipartisan, she contends, until 1994, when the Republicans won a majority in Congress after 40 years. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America was aimed at “reducing government in every possible way,” she writes.
“Democrats were demoralized. They had controlled the House for 40 years. Now they had lost it and it was hard for many senior members to adjust. I knew from my organizing background that if you can get people on their feet, enthusiasm tends to follow,” according to the book.
DeLauro recounted how, as deputy minority whip, she and her Democratic colleagues fought the Republicans on a number of fronts, attacking a proposed balanced-budget amendment and transferring the cost of school lunches to the states through block grants, which would cut their subsidy.
In protest, children held hands in a ring around the Capitol, holding paper plates reading “Don’t End Our School Lunch!” Democrats attacked other cuts by speaking out and organizing their constituents to do the same.
“We ended up defeating the Contract with America in its first hundred days … The Gingrich Republicans had the momentum and we stopped them,” she writes.
But it couldn’t have been done without arousing Americans to organize and make their voices heard.
“What I want to do with the book is to remind people about the importance of the safety net, what it means for millions of Americans,” DeLauro said. “I also want to activate people. I want to mobilize them. I want them to protect the safety net from Donald Trump and Paul Ryan.
While she is once again in the minority in the House, DeLauro holds out hope. She noted that Ryan, now speaker of the House, had to pull the bill that would repeal Obamacare and take health care away from millions of Americans because “he probably had 30 to 35 Republicans who were opposed … and that’s because people made their voices heard,” DeLauro said.
While the second version of the American Health Care Act passed the House, the Senate version is being formed “in secret [with] no hearings,” DeLauro said. “What are they going to do? It has to come back to the House. I feel people smell the taste of potential success. I think they’re going to make their voices heard.”
A number of the chapters in “The Least Among Us” are titled “In Defense of …,” including working families, the hungry, women, people who get sick, children, the unemployed and fair trade. One is on “Politics and Faith.”
“My faith has always been important to me,” DeLauro writes. When she arrived in 1991, “People in Congress were understood to have a number of motivations and influences informing their votes,” she writes. “This is very different from the atmosphere today. … The politics of abortion completely took over the conversation on faith in politics,” she writes.
As a pro-choice Democrat guided by the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, “I was concerned that Democrats were being viewed as godless creatures, and pilloried for not having values or morals,” she says in the book.
DeLauro recounts how she was forced to resign as a trustee of her Catholic high school because the archbishop “had said that my continued membership on the board would endanger the school’s certification as a Catholic institution.”
Nationally, the atmosphere only got worse during the 2004 re-election campaign of President George W. Bush, with Democratic nominee John Kerry threatened with being denied Communion because of his pro-choice stance. It was a painful time, but, DeLauro writes, after Bush’s re-election she and fellow Catholic Democrats worked to define their views more broadly, challenging budget cuts that hurt working families and the poor.
“I wanted my church to be a moral force in the broadest sense, at a time when we were looking at growing numbers of Americans living in poverty and going without health insurance,” she writes.
Among her assignments in the House is as the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations’ subcommittee dealing with labor, health and human services and education. But she said much of her success has been in taking on causes that aren’t in her committees’ orbit, such as food safety, trade and the Affordable Care Act.
“I went to the House of Representatives not coming from a legislative background,” she said. “I had helped to elect many people — mayors, governors, senators, state representatives, state senators, so I went to the Congress as someone without legislative experience and I made a determination that what I wanted to do was to be a policy person.
“I had a lot of political experience, a lot of campaign experience, but I wasn’t a policy person … and subsequently I did go down that road.”