At Tuesday night’s State of the Union, Donald Trump inadvertently triggered a celebration by female Democratic lawmakers, who were dressed in white as a tribute to the suffrage movement, when he touted statistics about women’s employment. One congresswoman in particular stood out: fourth-term New Hampshire Rep. Ann Kuster, who earned the admiration of many observers by taking it back to the ’90s and “raising the roof”:
I spoke to Kuster by phone on Wednesday about her roof raising and the record number of women in Congress. The interview has been edited and condensed.
Ben Mathis-Lilley: Walk me through that moment at the State of the Union. The first noteworthy thing was that all the women in the House were wearing white.
Rep. Ann Kuster: We were all wearing white in solidarity with the suffragettes, and in recognition that it’s been 100 years since women fought for and won the right to vote. We now have 102 women in the House, so we were celebrating all of that and wanted to make that visual clear to the American people because that’s predominantly Democrats. [Ed. note: 89 of the women in the House are Democrats.] We feel this every single day out on the floor—that our caucus reflects the diversity of America and that the Republican caucus does not. We just didn’t expect that the president himself would sort of dish up this contrast.
With his line about jobs.
He made a comment like, “58 percent of the new jobs last year went to women.” It was actually [New York] Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that got it started. She stood up and turned around and pointed to all of us House members, many of them brand-new and having defeated Republican members. We started to celebrate that line, that 58 percent of the jobs were taken by women, and in our case, taken from Republican men. Trump didn’t get it—he thought we were just applauding this fact about the changing nature of our economy.
I didn’t realize it was Gillibrand who started it.
Yeah, she was kind of down in the front. And there were others. The House women that are in leadership that were over in the middle section of the chamber—[Massachusetts Rep.] Katherine Clark, who is my roommate, she also stood up and also gestured toward all of us sitting together.
Was there anything about the moment that was personal to you?
This was the first time since I’ve been in Congress—I was elected in 2012—that Nancy Pelosi was presiding and sitting behind the president. There was a tremendous amount of energy, I think partly because we all were wearing white. We don’t typically draw attention to what we’re wearing. We try to go about our business in a professional way. But people were excited. We were all together in this powerful moment of having the most women ever to serve in the United States Congress. It’s a very moving experience. And it’s happening at a time when we are under threat. I literally had just come from a meeting with a whole group of members of Congress and activists that have to do with the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos’ proposed changes to the Title IX regulations about sexual assault on college campuses. It’s devastating what they’re proposing.
I grew up in a Republican family, a liberal Republican family. Those people don’t exist anymore, and I think the country would be better served to have more women in Congress from both parties. Particularly when you get to a reference like the one [Trump] made later in the speech about abortion, or reproductive health. [Trump accused Democrats of being eager to abort fetuses just before or even after birth.] I’ve been an adoption attorney for 25 years. I know that if somebody has to make a decision about terminating a pregnancy, that’s an anguishing decision at that stage in the pregnancy. It’s, first of all, very rare, and second, it’s typically about a traumatic health issue. So for him to try to score political points and then have 200 men leap to their feet cheering, it was just heart-wrenching for us, and I don’t think the American people are well-served by that.
You’ve been in Congress for a few years now—what was the camaraderie between female members like before this big 2018 class?
I was sitting right next to [Florida Rep.] Lois Frankel. She’s our den mother. Lois came in with me—she was the mayor of West Palm Beach and chairs the Democratic Women’s Working Group. Lois is the person that put out the word that we would all wear white together. She is one of the people, along with my roommate Katherine Clark, who’s now the vice chair of the [House Democratic Caucus], and others, who encouraged these women to run for office all across the country. We did fundraising for them, we traveled around the country to their districts to support them, we provided the mentoring to help them get to Washington, and we continue to do that on a daily basis. We cook dinner for each other and take care of each other. Two weeks ago, Lois literally had a pajama party. We care for one another and support each other when people are going through challenging times. We have a colleague right now whose spouse is very ill and we’ll be there for her. And we support each other in Congress. We co-sponsor each other’s bills and join each other’s caucuses.
Is there any issue you in particular are looking forward to addressing as a part of the new majority?
Absolutely. I just joined the Energy and Commerce Committee, and there are two big issues. That’s the committee where we’ll do health care, and in particular New Hampshire has been very hard hit by the opioid epidemic. I had already created a bipartisan task force to combat the opioid epidemic, and we’ve got 105 members of Congress working together, so I expect to move forward on my committee with that agenda, to help provide treatment and long-term recovery and to help prevent opioid addiction. The other big issue, same committee, is everything related to addressing climate change, making sure that we expand renewable energy and limit the use of fossil fuels.
Going back to the State of the Union, in addition to the roof raising there was the “Happy Birthday” singalong. There was a lot of “U-S-A” chanting. It felt kind of looser than usual.
It’s different when you’re sitting there experiencing it than what it looks like on television. I thought [Trump] was very low-energy and I thought the delivery of it was very disjointed, that the transitions were very awkward. What was happening for us on the floor was sort of a disconnect. He did not seem very comfortable with the message that he was trying to deliver. This discordant nature of him trying to talk about bipartisanship but then hitting every wedge issue that he possibly could come up with. My experience with him is we do have a lot of bipartisan issues that we could be working on and we should be working on together, like infrastructure or lowering the cost of prescription drugs. But he doesn’t act as though he will follow through on them.
So there’s kind of a discordant feeling that leads to some of those awkward moments of the laughing and the cheering and that sort of thing?
Yeah, I think so, because everybody sort of awkwardly—with President Obama, when you were sitting there listening to President Obama, they were his words. You know that he had pored over every draft, and I saw the drafts with his handwritten notes in the margins. He had thought about it. He was presenting his own thoughts. That’s not the experience [with Trump]. I turned several times to my colleagues and said, “He sounds like it’s the first time he’s read it.”
I have one more question, which is about how raising the roof is kind of a ’90s thing.
One of my nieces sent a text and said, “Oh, I recognize those moves from your dancing at weddings.” It is like having your—I’m not a grandmother yet, but it is like having your grandmother dance on TV.
Have you ever said that anything was “the bomb?”
[Laughs] That is not an expression I use.