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Mary Bono Mack juggles new roles, on and off the Hill

Rep. Mary Bono Mack is all over the map.

In Washington, the longtime Republican lawmaker from California is an increasingly prominent player on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, while also trying to be a voice for two constituencies — moderates and women — that she believes don’t always receive the requisite attention within the House Republican Conference.

In Palm Springs, she is facing a spirited reelection challenge. In Florida, she’s the wife of a Senate candidate. And on the national stage, she’s a high-profile surrogate for former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential bid. Oh, and in Northern Virginia, she’s a first-time grandmother.

So how can she possibly divide her time so many ways?

“For every working mom, there’s a working balance, a very delicate balance to strike,” Bono Mack said in an interview last week. That can mean not seeing her husband for long stretches. Or it can mean turning down a “Meet the Press” appearance so she can spend time with her family, as was the case recently.

Mary Bono Mack, left, and Chaz Bono arrive at the GLAAD Media Awards in Los Angeles on April 21, 2012. (PHIL McCARTEN/REUTERS)

Bono Mack’s willingness to speak for and about women is part of what made the Romney campaign recently push her to the forefront, when the presumed Republican nominee was being attacked for having an unclear position on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

“Women in the Obama economy are facing hardships of historical proportions,” Bono Mack said in response, prompting Democrats to note that she had joined nearly all her fellow Republicans in voting against the Lilly Ledbetter measure in 2009.

But Bono Mack doesn’t necessarily see herself as a top voice on “women’s issues.”

“The strange thing about me is that I don’t believe there is a separate set of ‘women’s issues.’ I’m one who believes women care about the same issues men do,” Bono Mack said, although she did allow that women “relate differently to candidates” than men do.

In January, Bono Mack was summoned by the Romney campaign to serve as a surrogate against former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), with whom both she and her late husband, Rep. Sonny Bono (R-Calif.).

She and her husband, Florida Rep. Connie Mack (R) — who is running for the Senate — and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) trailed Gingrich in Florida to remind reporters of his turbulent speakership and dubbed him an unreliable leader. At some stops, the lawmakers got into much-publicized spats with Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond.

Asked whether she enjoyed such sparring, Bono Mack confessed, “No, I didn’t. . . . It was a little bit difficult and R.C. kind of played the guilt trip on me,” because she had been friends with Gingrich.

Back on Capitol Hill, Bono Mack recently helped found the Women’s Policy Committee, which she hopes will serve as a lobbying force within the Republican Conference.

“When our leadership makes a puzzling decision . . . I want to have the opportunity for us to come together as a group of women to discuss with leadership how things can be better done,” Bono Mack said.

Although she declined to specify any instances in which she felt the leadership had neglected their views, Bono Mack said she thinks Republican women in Congress are too little-known and that is hurting the party’s efforts with female voters.

“The spokespeople for women Republicans have been Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, and with all due respect to them, that’s presidential politics, not congressional politics,” she said.

Similarly, Bono Mack — who has a center-right voting record and is a member of the Republican Main Street Partnership — said that what she and her fellow moderates “would like is more of an opportunity to explain to the leadership what we think ought to be happening.”

Previously a fitness instructor and restaurant manager, Bono Mack had no political experience when she was elected to the House in 1998, following Sonny Bono’s death in a skiing accident. She has spent seven terms learning the language of policy, focusing on issues that include prescription drug abuse and telecommunications.

“I’ve always had a natural affinity for technology,” she said.

She apparently also has an affinity for cross-country flights. Bono Mack has been spending a lot of time with her daughter, who lives in Northern Virginia and gave birth to a girl in mid-February.

But Bono Mack also has to keep an eye on her Southern California district, where emergency room doctor Raul Ruiz, a Democrat, is hoping to score an upset against her in November. Bono Mack is strongly favored to keep her seat, but Ruiz has at least raised enough money to draw some attention.

And in Florida, Connie Mack is running in a heated Republican primary for the chance to face Sen. Bill Nelson (D). So Bono Mack and her husband are often apart, although they do use Facetime, the online video chat program, to stay in touch most days.

“I see him midweek when we’re voting, and on weekends we go our separate ways,” Bono Mack said. “No member of Congress has a perfect life and gets to see their spouse all the time. We both have fantastic districts and we’re very proud of where we come from.”

For previous In Session columns, go to postpolitics.com.

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