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Leaning In With Rosa DeLauro

More Than 40 Years into Her Career,  This Congresswoman’s Still Looking Forward

Rosa DeLauro leans in when she speaks.

She can’t help it. Maybe it’s a natural pushback from decades of mansplaining. Perhaps it’s a way to become more personal with whomever she is speaking to. It could also just be that she feels the clock is ticking and there’s not a moment to waste.

Even from behind her desk at her Congressional office in downtown New Haven, she leans closer towards her interviewer, past the neat piles of paperwork, her clasped hands reaching out as she makes point after point, for this congresswoman is on a roll.

Two days after the midterm elections, when this interview took place, she has the wide-eyed spirit of the Born Again, singing the gospel of the Progressive Democrats and banging the tambourine of the party faithful. Voter turnout was record-breaking for a midterm election; Democrats took commanding control of the U.S. House of Representatives; and there were big wins in the Connecticut legislature and governorship, too.

Only the U.S. Senate remaining in Republican control spoiled the perfect party. “But that was a long shot anyway,” says DeLauro, instead pointing to fresh Democratic candidates losing in squeakers, in such GOP strongholds as Texas, Georgia and Florida.

In a Congressional world of gray suits and grayer personalities, DeLauro stands out by her forceful personality as well by her fashion choices. On this day she is dressed in a stylish olive-colored top and burgundy scarf and – as if to give any doubts of her willingness to go bold – she sports a hipster streak of purple in her close-cropped hair.

At 76, DeLauro speaks with the breathless vigor of a freshman legislator eager to shake things up, not a Congresswoman who had just finished her 15th campaign for Connecticut’s Third District with yet another slam dunk.

“There’s new energy with our very diverse caucus,” she says, getting right to her stream of consciousness policy points. “We are going to have more than 100 women in the House.”

“There will be a great focus on making a change and moving forward on issues and policy that people have been clamoring about – like health care, prescription drugs, covering people with pre-existing conditions, jobs, training, infrastructure, ridding corruption and dealing with campaign finance reform.”

With Democrats in the majority led by pal Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, DeLauro chairs the subcommittee on labor, education and health.

“Through the appropriations process, we can reinforce our priorities and reverse some of the outrageous things they [Republicans] did. I think the appropriations piece is going to be at the center of it all.”

What worries her most?

“I don’t know the extent of the fears the president will continue to play on and what that does to the electorate – and the country at large. For me, in terms of this election, this fight was for the soul of the country – as well as for democratic institutions, the rule of law, freedom of speech. People are now skeptical of democratic institutions and that is scary. And if you think about the ways in which [Republicans] tried to suppress the vote – unbelievable – and it’s still all at risk. Still. The more frightened the president becomes about his own future, the greater he lashes out.”

When asked if she has changed her M.O. over the nearly three decades in office, she pauses – but just for a moment.

“I don’t think so, no,” she says. “I am who I am.”

Political Roots

And who she is remains rooted in her family heritage. You could say politics is in her DNA.

She is the only child of her Italian immigrant father Theodore DeLauro and his first-generation Italian wife Luisa Canestri DeLauro. From their home at 352 Greene St., just off Wooster Square, her parents saw civic engagement as a way of helping others. Around their kitchen table where politics was the lingua franca, neighbors, and especially Italian immigrants, gathered to voice their concerns and needs to her politically active father and her mother, who would follow her husband as alder, serving more than three decades – the longest run in elected city government.

But politics wasn’t always the Congresswoman’s personal goal. She says as a little girl, what she really wanted to become when she grew up was a tap dancer.

“I went to Phyllis Grande School of Dance for 12 years and I loved it. But my father said, ‘Well, you need to get a more stable profession.’ That’s the God’s-honest truth. I would do it now [take tap lessons] in a heartbeat if I had the time. I still love it.”

DeLauro attended the London School of Economics in 1962 and 1963, graduated cum laude from Marymount College in 1964, and earned a master’s degree in international politics from Columbia University in 1966.

She was one of the first community organizers in the War on Poverty program, the first executive director of the political action group Emily’s List, and was executive assistant to Frank Logue and ran his New Haven mayoral campaign in 1975. “I was part of the insurgency,” she recalls, referring to a new era of political change for New Haven.

DeLauro became the first woman to run a statewide campaign in Connecticut with Christopher Dodd’s first senatorial bid. She then became his chief of staff from 1981 to 1987. In 1986, she learned she had ovarian cancer, and after treatments, she’s been a cancer survivor for the last 33 years.

When then-U.S. Rep Bruce Morrison decided to run for governor, DeLauro approached Democratic leaders about running for Morrison’s seat.

“I knew enough about politics to know that the door doesn’t stay open long. This was an opportunity, so you either take it or it may not come by again,” she says. “Running for this office was the culmination of a lot of things I had done. But I was scared to death. I had helped a lot of people get elected but I had never run for office myself. It was steep learning curve.”

Others were interested in the seat as well, but DeLauro was methodical and went town to town, connecting with each potential delegate, and then did door-to-door voter outreach until she secured the nomination and eventual first win.

Her Mother’s Daughter

DeLauro’s husband is Stanley Greenberg, president of a research and polling firm, and together they have three grown children.  In Washington, D.C. the liberal power couple live in a townhouse not far from Capitol Hill. (Former Obama chief-of-staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once rented their basement apartment.)

They also have a home in New Haven and three years ago downsized to a condo at The Eli downtown, just a few blocks from where DeLauro grew up.
But more than the many powerful men who have helped shape her political career, it was her mother who influenced her the most and whom she still refers to regularly in conversations.

You know this is the first time my mother hasn’t been here on election night,” says DeLauro sadly, noting her mother died in 2017 at age 103.

Though Luisa DeLauro began her elected career as an alder in the ‘60s, her political involvement began much earlier.

“In the ‘30s my father was the president of the 10th Ward Democratic Club and my mom was recording secretary; that’s a job they gave to the women.

She wrote this article and it’s a really a touchstone to me. It urged women to get involved,” DeLauro says.

She keeps a copy of an article her mother wrote to Democratic women when she was 19, and her parents weren’t yet married.

“We are not living in the Middle Ages,” Luisa DeLauro wrote, “when a woman’s part in life was merely to serve her master in her home, but we have gradually taken our place in every phase of human endeavor and even in the heretofore stronghold of the male sex: politics.”

The last line is: “C’mon, girls. Let’s make ourselves heard.”

That rallying cry has buoyed her daughter over the years, in good times and bad.

When asked if she ever got depressed, DeLauro looks directly at the questioner with her fierce brown eyes. “We don’t have time to be depressed. The stakes are very high. That’s a driving force.”

She quotes former U.S. Rep Shirley Chisholm, the first female African-American elected to the U.S. Congress (1968), the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for president, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, in 1972.

“She’s a great hero of mine. When she was running, it was really tough going for her. But she said you don’t walk off the field, you don’t stand in the sidelines, you don’t complain and don’t whimper. You just move forward.”

Written and photographed by Frank Rizzo