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NH All-Female Delegation Ready To Break Gridlock


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, you've probably heard the name Treyvon Martin in connection with the debate about the so-called Stand Your Ground law in Florida, but have you heard about John McNeil? He's a Georgia homeowner who's been sentenced to life in prison for fatally shooting a man who'd threatened McNeil's son on McNeil's property.

We'll talk about why civil rights leaders are trying to call attention to this case and whether the comparison with the Treyvon Martin matter is in fact appropriate. That is later in the program. But first we go to New Hampshire for a story about a milestone in politics. In 1999, New Hampshire was the first state to have a female governor, Senate president and House speaker. Now, a little over a decade later, the state is making history again.

Earlier this month women were picked to fill both of New Hampshire's seats in the House of Representatives. They are joining the state's two female U.S. senators - and oh, by the way, the state also just elected another female governor. Which means, if you're doing the math, New Hampshire has now become the first state to have an all-female congressional delegation as well as woman serving as chief executive.

We're speaking with one member of that delegation now. Democrat Ann McLane Kuster is a congresswoman-elect from New Hampshire and she is with us now. Welcome and congratulations to you.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT ANN MCLANE KUSTER: Thank you, Michel. It's great to be on your show.

MARTIN: Now, this may sound like a stupid question, but when you were campaigning, did it occur to you that this might be the case, that there might be this history-making event? Or was it one of those things that just wasn't on your radar until it actually happened?

KUSTER: No. People were talking about it, particularly toward the end as Maggie Hassan became such a strong candidate for governor and as the two congressional seats started to look like they were going to elect women. I should add that the chief justice of our Supreme Court is also a woman. So people were getting very excited about being first in the nation.

And actually a lot of the issues that we were talking about, they're not maybe the traditional quote-unquote women's issues but they're everyday bread and butter issues that women care a great deal about.

MARTIN: So anytime other people are making a big deal out of something, I like to ask the people about whom the big deal is being made if it's a big deal to them. Is it a big deal to you? Do you think it's a big deal?

KUSTER: Oh, yes. I mean I feel very proud of New Hampshire, and I'm sure all of the women that are elected feel proud to have New Hampshire be first. One of the things is we have a long history of women working in New Hampshire, and you know, if you need something done, ask a busy woman. So it's not unusual for women to be holding positions in elected office here, but it's certainly very exciting to have us all doing it at the same time.

MARTIN: And you come from a political family. In fact, you are an example of the fact that it's not unusual for women to hold elective office there. Your mother was a state lawmaker for a long time, as I recall. It was something like...

KUSTER: Twenty-five years.

MARTIN: Twenty-five years. Your dad was the mayor of Concord. He later ran for governor as an independent. And the other thing that a number of people are noting is that it's not just that this is an all-female delegation but this is a delegation of women who are mothers. And many of you have older kids but a lot of you are still in your active parenting stage. What difference, if any, do you think this might make?

KUSTER: Well, I think it's a very different perspective in the sense that the types of policies we're discussing are impacting our lives. I'll give you a very concrete example. My husband Brad and I have two kids in college and any conversation about higher education, we know that these payments are just breathtaking.

And I'm sure that Senator Kelly Ayotte, the lone Republican in the group, feels that way about having young children. These are issues that we're dealing with every single day in our daily lives and so I think we reflect the voters and the issues that they're concerned about.

MARTIN: This isn't the first time you challenged incumbent Republican Congressman Charles Bass, but this time you beat him. Any sense of what made the difference this time?

KUSTER: Well, in the first campaign in 2010, we came very, very close - just 3,000 votes, one percent - from winning, but clearly that was a big Republican wave that we were up against. And so in the 2012 Democratic wave, with the president on the ballot certainly was a benefit. And also I worked very hard in the southern part of the state where I was less well known.

Got my name out there and people came around and we were able to win by six points. So 17,000 votes.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and my guest is Congresswoman-elect Annie McLane Kuster. She will be, come January, a member of New Hampshire's congressional delegation. It's the first all-female congressional delegation in history. And the state also has elected a women as chief executive, Governor Maggie Hassan.

You mentioned earlier in our conversation that the so-called traditional women's issues were not necessarily front and center in your campaign and in the campaigns around the state. Could you talk a little bit more about that?

KUSTER: Well, what's interesting is I think they were on everyone's mind, but we didn't spend a lot of time talking about them. And by that, the exit polling shows that 72 percent of the voters in New Hampshire are pro-choice. They tend to believe in less government interference in people's personal lives.

So that includes Republicans, Democrats, independents. I think the national conversation with the comments that were being made on the Republican side at the national level meant that voters, particularly women, were very aware that our freedoms and our health was in jeopardy. But we didn't need to spend a lot of time talking about it on the campaign trail. It was a foregone conclusion that voters feel very strongly that women have access to the health care that they need.

MARTIN: And along those lines, one of the other conversations that's been very sort of prominent in some circles is this one that was kind of sparked by a former member of the Obama administration, the State Department. She was the head of the policy shop, a woman named Anne Marie Slaughter, who's a professor.

She wrote a piece for The Atlantic saying why women still can't have it all, you know, describing what she called are some of the structural issues that still keep women from achieving the highest levels of involvement in certain areas. And I'm just interested in how you feel your ability to do both - to have a public life, to raise children, and also to have been raised as the daughter of a mother who also had a public life - do you have some thoughts about the issues that she raised? Are these issues that public policy can even address?

KUSTER: Well, in my own case, I waited until my children were older. Our boys are now 21 and 24. They are no longer living at home. And I felt that I would have more time and effort and energy to move to Washington and be commuting back and forth. In my own personal case, I think it would've been difficult with young children, but I really applaud the women that are able to do it with young children because their perspective is extremely important.

But certainly the public issues about equal pay, for example, are critical so that families can afford for a woman to be involved in public policy. And then flexible work schedules. And I'm finding that now even hiring my staff, you know, I'm able to negotiate for greater talent if I can be more flexible in the workplace.

And that's been the story of my own life and I want to help to continue that here in New Hampshire.

MARTIN: What about kind of the other issue that's been very much a part of the conversation about the way Washington works? I mean not just how it works for the people doing those jobs but the way Washington works or doesn't work overall. I'm sure you know that Congress had a historically low approval rating over the last couple of years. I mean, you know, in the single digits, in fact.

And one of the things that voters cite in responding to this is a sense that members just can't seem to get together to solve the big problems that the country is facing. Is there any way in which you feel that you and the delegation that you are joining can change that? Be a part of that? Change that conversation?

KUSTER: Yes. Absolutely. You know, some might wonder why I would want this position in a Congress that has 9 percent approval, but, look, I've been a part of social change before. I went to an all-male college after 200 years and was in the third class of women and so I believe that we do need to open up our institutions. Congress needs to have much greater bipartisanship and non-partisanship. We need to reach across the aisle and find solutions to these problems that are affecting voters all across the country.

And I believe that women have great skills in bringing people together to get things done. I've said, if you can deal with toddlers and teenagers, Lord knows you can find common ground.

MARTIN: Except that some of the most polarizing figures in American politics today are also women. I mean, people like Sarah Palin, for example, who's obviously a very polarizing figure in American life. Michele Bachmann was a member of - is still a member of Congress, held onto her seat after a tough battle, was a Tea Party favorite. Also, to be bipartisan about it, some argue that Hillary Clinton was a very polarizing figure, too, in her era. That seems to have changed now, now that she's...

KUSTER: Right.

MARTIN: ...secretary of state, but...

KUSTER: I think, if you look at her skills as Secretary of State, if you look at some of the women governors - certainly, Jeanne Shaheen, our former governor, now U.S. Senator, but Jennifer Granholm - if you look around the country, you'll find examples of people who work very, very well across party lines and find common ground.

And I think it's going to be men and women. You know, I'm in the most diverse class of people ever to arrive in the United States Congress and we come from all different backgrounds, different ethnic cultures, different religions and so finding common ground is an experience that we've been working on for most of our adult lives.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, if we were to speak two years from now - I hope it'll be sooner than that - but, if we were to speak two years from now about the two years that you just had in your first term in Congress talking about these issues, particularly the issue of gridlock, what kind of conversation do you think we'll be having?

KUSTER: I hope the conversation will be about specific instances of how we were able to find common ground. Look, these are problems that everyone faces. Access to good jobs, access to adequate, affordable health care, trying to have our families and our children have opportunity, higher education and training. We all live in this world together. Healthy air, healthy water. I hope that we will find great examples of finding common ground on issues that don't have to be polarizing and that we are able to make progress on behalf of people all across our country.

MARTIN: Congresswoman-elect Ann McLane Kuster is joining New Hampshire's congressional delegation. It is the first all-female congressional delegation ever elected in this country. The state also elected another female governor and she was kind enough to join us from Manchester, New Hampshire.

Congresswoman-elect, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

KUSTER: Terrific. I'd be happy to do it any time, Michel, and thank you so much. I'm so proud of you in your role, as well. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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