Marge Roukema, who served 22 years in the House of Representatives as a moderate Republican from New Jersey and who co-sponsored the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, died Nov. 12 at a nursing home in Wyckoff, N.J. She was 85.
She had Alzheimer’s disease, said her daughter, Margaret “Meg” Kuhn.
Mrs. Roukema, a onetime teacher and school board member in Ridgewood, N.J., ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 1978 before winning election in 1980 from an affluent district in northernmost New Jersey. She defeated the Democratic incumbent, Andrew Maguire, calling him a liberal out of touch with his constituents — a tactic that would later be used against her.
During her 11 terms in office, Mrs. Roukema was known as a fiscally conservative back-bencher who held relatively moderate views on a range of social issues. She was a pro-choice Republican who opposed “soft money” in political campaigns and resisted conservative attempts to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1994, she was one of 11 Republicans to vote for a bill to ban assault weapons.
Over time, Mrs. Roukema found herself increasingly out of step with the growing conservatism that came to dominate the Republican Party.
She was drawn to her signature issue of family leave from personal experience, after caring for her son Todd, who died of leukemia at 17 in 1976. Mrs. Roukema joined forces with Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) in the House to sponsor a bill that called for employers to provide their workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected family leave for the birth of child, an urgent medical need and other conditions.
“Families are thrown into crisis when serious illness strikes. I know,” Mrs. Roukema said in a speech on the House floor in 1993. “When my son Todd was stricken with leukemia and needed home care, I was free to remain at home. But what about the millions of mothers who work?”
The bill was twice vetoed by President George H.W. Bush before President Bill Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law in 1993.
After her reelection in 2000, Mrs. Roukema was the longest-serving woman in the House and the senior member of the New Jersey congressional delegation. She was the ranking Republican on the House Financial Services Committee, but the GOP leadership rejected her bid to chair the panel.
Stung by the snub, Mrs. Roukema told the New York Times in 2002, “There has to be a recognition that without the moderates we cannot be a majority party.”
After narrowly escaping conservative challenges in the Republican primary from Scott Garrett in 1998 and 2000, Mrs. Roukema did not seek reelection in 2002. Garrett now represents her old district.
Margaret Ellen Scafati was born Sept. 19, 1929, in Newark and grew up in West Orange, N.J. Her father was an auto mechanic.
She graduated from Montclair State University in 1951 and was a high school English and history teacher in the 1950s.
Her husband of 60 years, Richard W. Roukema, a psychiatrist and author, died in 2011. Besides her daughter, of Eagle, Idaho, survivors include a son, Greg Roukema of Franklin Lakes, N.J.; a brother; and five grandchildren.
Mrs. Roukema said she became known as “Marge” soon after she was married.
“That’s because people probably couldn’t pronounce Roukema,” she said.
For the record, her last name was pronounced “ROCK-a-muh.”