WASHINGTON — The most powerful congresswoman from New York did not maker her name on Twitter.
She’s an 81-year-old grandmother who got her start in public life as the head of the PTA at Public School 178 in Queens, a short walk from the boyhood home of America’s most famous tweeter, Donald Trump.
She’s Rep. Nita Lowey, the chairwoman of the House Committee on Appropriations.
When people say Congress has the power of the purse, she’s the one who pulls the strings.
She once considered a run for Senate in 2000, but decided to stick with her district, and ceded the path to Hillary Clinton. She passed again in 2009 when Clinton became secretary of state, and Kirsten Gillibrand was named senator.
“And here I am,” Lowey said this week, sitting in her new office just off the House floor in the U.S. Capitol, where she is the person who gets the first say in how America spends some $1.3 trillion every year.
Lowey doesn’t spend a lot of time bragging, but she’s willing to admit her job is at least as powerful as the Senate post she declined to seek.
“Maybe more so,” she said. “I am the chairwoman, the first woman to be chair of the Appropriations Committee, and I have an opportunity to look at each bill, review each bill.”
Lowey says she wants to do what she can to help vital projects in New York, like funding the foundering MTA, the giant Gateway tunnel program and restoring state and local tax breaks. But most of the time, people probably won’t hear about it until it’s done. And if she isn’t setting social media aflame, she is known well by the senators she will have to deal with to get the spending New Yorkers and Democrats want.
“I’ve know her a long time, I’ve met with her, I have a good relationship with her, I think she’s a fine person, and I look forward to working with her,”” Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) told the News.
“She’s a workhorse,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the top Senate Democrat on the committee, somewhat mangling the oft-repeated line that some politicians are show horses, and others get things done. “She works very hard.”
It’s a sharp contrast to what seems to work in modern politics, where celebrity power and social media savvy hold ever greater sway over the news and the public.
Lowey is certainly aware of second-by-second opinion wars raging across phone apps in America, and is publicly embracing New York’s latest emblem of the new order, new Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. “AOC, I guess we call her,” Lowey said.
“I spent an hour with her. She was very thoughtful,” she said, adding that she liked a lot of what Ocasio-Cortez supports, including Medicare for all. “Medicare for all, by the way, is not such a far-out idea anymore. I have talked about it, I have supported it. Many of us who I consider mainstream Democrats have supported it.”
She also regarded Ocasio-Cortez’s social media prowess with a certain amount of wry, grandmotherly humor.
“She told me just this morning she has over a million Twitter followers, and she does her own twittering, or tweeting, what do you call it? Twitting, tweeting?” Lowey said. “Staff does Facebook, but she does (Twitter).”
As far as advice for the freshman, Lowey didn’t want to offer any.
“She’ll figure it out herself. She does just fine,” Lowey said, noting that Ocasio-Cortez won an Intel Science contest prize when she was a high schooler in Lowey’s Rockland-Westchester district. “She was a very serious student based on my conversations with her. And I expect she will be a serious legislator.”
Ocasio-Cortez may well prove to be a serious legislator but it’s hard to imagine her dealing in Washington the way Lowey does.
The veteran lawmaker is obviously frustrated by the ongoing government shutdown, and President Trump’s antics.
“I think it’s outrageous. If adults have different opinions, they sit down and work it out. The President of the United States seems to be proud of shutting down the government,” Lowey said. “That’s not a way to be President and it’s certainly nothing I’m proud of as a member of Congress.”
But she is very much looking forward to getting back to something more resembling normal, even if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is backing Trump by not bringing any of the spending bills Lowey and the Democrats have passed in the House over the past two weeks, without Trump’s money for the wall.
“I would hope after this outburst, this — what’s a good word to describe the President? Irresponsible leadership, or lack of leadership from the President — that we can get back to regular order,” Lowey said. “And I will say Sen. McConnell and I have worked together in the past. He is a dealmaker. He will want to get things done.”
That might not be the throw-em-all-out anger that energized Democrats want to hear, or entirely reflective of the urgency that flooded Washington with the Women’s March after Trump’s inauguration. But Lowey stands testament to a different, longer, slower women’s march that began decades ago.
Maybe it’s been so long and slow that people haven’t noticed it like the splashy newer political personalities crowding phone screens. But around the same time that Lowey was raising three children and leading a Holliswood PTA, another mother on the other side of the country named Nancy Pelosi was raising five children and getting active in California politics.