New Mexico's Wilson Forced to Taxi Before Maiden Floor Voyage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 1998; Page A13
Before even casting her first vote as the newest member of Congress, Republican Heather Wilson got a taste of two guiding principles on Capitol Hill: Nothing ever happens on time and whenever a junior lawmaker appears before the television cameras with House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), he or she will quickly be overshadowed.
Wilson, a former Air Force captain and state cabinet secretary, won last week's special election in New Mexico to replace the late Rep. Steven Schiff (R). The soft-voiced New Hampshire native was sworn in last Thursday as the 56th woman in the House, a new record.
"It's not quite real yet," she told reporters minutes after the swearing-in on the House floor.
For the occasion, Wilson wore the bright red jacket dubbed her "lucky debate blazer" and brought her extended family. A two-hour delay and the general pandemonium of the House floor was a bit too much for Wilson's 21-month-old daughter Caitlin to endure, so she and her father escaped to a balcony to watch the festivities. But Josh, their red-headed 4-year-old, had a ball scooting between the wide leather chairs and was leaping down on to the plush carpet as his mother accepted congratulations.
At a reenactment for the cameras, it was Gingrich who got the press attention, fielding questions about the line-item veto and why Democrats attempted to make him an issue in the heated battle for New Mexico's 1st District seat.
"We think this is an exciting enough event that you don't need to ask any tough questions," said Wilson's mentor, Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.).
Even in the club of 435 lawmakers, Wilson is among the elite few with advanced degrees and is the only female veteran in Congress and the first Air Force Academy graduate to be elected, according to Gingrich.
A Rhodes scholar with a doctorate in international relations, the 37-year-old Wilson served on the National Security Council staff in the Bush administration before moving to Albuquerque in 1991 to marry her former Air Force Academy law instructor, Jay Hone. They have three children, including an adopted son who had been Hone's foster child.
Wilson is expected to be a fairly reliable vote for GOP leaders, though she is more moderate on some social issues. She opposes federal funding for abortion and late-term procedures known as "partial birth." But she would permit abortions at U.S. military clinics overseas as long as the procedure remains legal.
Despite party efforts to promote school voucher programs, Wilson is skeptical of the idea. She says she would support only a handful of pilot projects to test the idea of giving parents coupons to allow their children to opt out of public schools. She also opposes an "English-only" constitutional amendment, noting proudly that her children are on the road to being bilingual English and Spanish even though she does not speak Spanish.
Yet she is eager to abolish the marriage tax penalty and virtually eliminate the Department of Education two pet projects of conservatives. And she has made clear she will oppose reductions in military spending and efforts to use American forces in many overseas missions.
"American troops should only go in harm's way to protect American interests, under the American flag," she said.
Supported by a wide array of business groups, antiabortion organizations and the National Rifle Association, Wilson says she would have voted against the ban on assault weapons. "The problem is not guns; it's the way we raise our children."
Wilson is also among a new breed of female politicians who have taken aggressive stands on crime. As head of the state Department on Children, Youth and Families, she played a prominent role in building two new juvenile facilities in New Mexico, including a maximum security prison. She also lobbied for a bill to reduce the age for trying young killers as adults to 14 (the legislature voted to lower the age to 15).
Wilson carries herself with a military demeanor, seen by some as stern or unemotional. More than one supporter has compared her to Vice President Gore, particularly when she delves into the eye-glazing arcana of arms control or missile systems.
Because one of her New Mexico colleagues, Rep. Bill Redmond (R), already has a seat on the House National Security Committee, seemingly a natural for someone of her background, Wilson is considering a few other House committee assignments, including the science and commerce panels.
Wilson doesn't have long to settle in before her next campaign: She must defend the seat again in November since the special election was only to fill out Schiff's term.
Title: House member, Republican, New Mexico District 1.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company