Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, a folksy New York liberal who championed women’s rights and American manufacturing for more than three decades as a Democratic congresswoman, and who became a top lieutenant for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as the first and only woman to lead the powerful Rules Committee, died March 16 at a hospital in Washington. She was 88 and the oldest sitting member of Congress.
The death was announced by her chief of staff, Liam Fitzsimmons. Rep. Slaughter had been hospitalized and treated for a concussion after falling at her home in the District, The Washington Post reported Wednesday .
The daughter of a blacksmith in a Kentucky coal mine, Rep. Slaughter traced her lineage to Daniel Boone and attacked her political opponents with a marksman’s accuracy and, not infrequently, a disarming grin.
“She’s sort of a combination of Southern charm and backroom politics, a Southern belle with a cigar in her mouth,” Jane Danowitz, executive director of the Women’s Campaign Fund, told The Post in 1992.
A microbiologist with a master’s degree in public health, Rep. Slaughter moved to western New York with her husband in the 1950s and entered politics two decades later, after fighting to preserve a stand of beech-maple forest near their home in the Rochester suburbs.
She served in the Monroe County Legislature and New York State Assembly before being elected to Congress in 1986 and soon established herself as a defender of blue-collar constituents who worked for Xerox or Kodak.
Breaking with Democratic Party leaders, she argued that international trade agreements did little more than drain the United States of manufacturing jobs. When President Bill Clinton asked her to support the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), according to the Almanac of American Politics, she replied, “Why are you carrying George Bush’s trash?”
Initially one of just 29 women in the House of Representatives, Rep. Slaughter was a flinty advocate of women’s access to health care and abortion.
She was a co-author of the Violence Against Women Act, a landmark 1994 law aimed at curbing domestic abuse and aiding its victims. In 1991, she was part of a group of seven Democratic congresswomen who marched to the Senate to demand a delay in the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
In a legislative assault she later likened to the World War II battle of Iwo Jima, she and her fellow legislators prevailed on their Senate colleagues to hear testimony from Anita Hill, a former Thomas aide who had accused him of sexual harassment.
“There’s no monolithic way that women respond to this,” she said at the time, referring to the harassment allegations. “But we are the people who write the laws of the land. Good lord, she should have some recourse here.”
Rep. Slaughter was the ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, which determines when and how bills reach the House floor, and, in 2007, served as chairman for four years after Pelosi became the first female House speaker.
She successfully marshaled legislation that included an ethics bill to tighten lobbying rules and later spearheaded a bill banning insider trading by lawmakers and their staff that became law in 2012.
Rep. Slaughter also co-wrote legislation prohibiting discrimination on the basis of genetic information. The measure, which passed in 2008, was designed to prevent insurance providers from rejecting coverage for healthy people predisposed to cancer and other diseases.
Among her greatest achievements was helping shepherd the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, during which she said she received a death threat and her district office window was smashed with a rock.
She remained nonchalant, however, even while inspiring Republican rage over a short-lived proposal known as “the Slaughter Strategy,” in which she considered passing the Senate version of Obamacare without an up-or-down vote — a tactic, she noted, her Republican colleagues had sometimes used themselves.
“We are about to unleash a cultural war in this country!” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) told her at the time. Using an idiom she may have drawn from her upbringing in Kentucky, she replied calmly, “I appreciate that you’re the bluebird of happiness.”
Rep. Slaughter described herself as the only microbiologist on Capitol Hill, and in recent years fought to establish stringent restrictions on the use of antibiotics in healthy cattle — a leading factor, she argued, in the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.
She often pointed toward a Food and Drug Administration report that found that in 2009, out of all the antibiotics sold for use by people and livestock, 80 percent went to animals.
“These statistics tell the tale of an industry that is rampantly misusing antibiotics in an attempt to cover up filthy, unsanitary living conditions among animals,” she told the New York Times in 2011. “As they feed antibiotics to animals to keep them healthy, they are making our families sicker by spreading these deadly strains of bacteria.”
Rep. Slaughter was unable to pass restrictive antibiotics legislation. But her proposal, introduced in each congressional session since 2007, helped draw national attention to the issue. In 2015, President Barack Obama announced a $1.2 billion, five-year plan to identify emerging “superbugs” and increase funding for new antibiotics and vaccines.
Dorothy Louise McIntosh was born in Harlan County, in southeastern Kentucky, on Aug. 14, 1929. She graduated from high school in Somerset, about 100 miles west, and said she decided to pursue microbiology after her sister died of pneumonia.
She studied at the University of Kentucky, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1951 and a master’s in 1953, and was working in Texas when she met Robert Slaughter at a motel pool.
They married in 1957, and he died in 2014. Survivors include three daughters; seven grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Rep. Slaughter took office after defeating one-term Republican Fred J. Eckert, arguing in campaign ads that he had done little to help free Associated Press reporter Terry Anderson, a Rochester native who was kidnapped by an Islamist group in Beirut the previous year.
She won with 51 percent of the vote, though she later said she was nearly defeated at the polls by sexism. “I had a lot of women tell me their husbands just couldn’t vote for me,” she told USA Today in 2007.
Her reelection campaigns grew increasingly contentious as she entered her 80s, with some opponents questioning her health and attacking her as a “Washington insider.” In 2012, she was sidelined from the campaign trail with a shattered leg she suffered from a fall, though she boasted she had “the stamina of three people” and would soon be back on the road.
Her hospitalization, she joked to the Times, had even given her an idea for a new campaign slogan: “Vote Louise. She has a leg up.”