New York Congresswoman Shares Lessons on Leadership

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The election cycle for president does more than dominate the news and airwaves. It also controls much of the action and inaction in Congress, a first-term congresswoman told a group gathered for the Fordham University Sander Flaum Lecture Series.

U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., sat down on Monday at the University Club with Flaum, the founder of Flaum Navigators and an adjunct professor at Fordham, for a discussion ranging from Rice’s Irish-Catholic upbringing as one of 10 children in Garden City to her experiences in Congress.

While Rice, elected in 2014, is excited to be one of the 435 members of Congress, she is troubled by how politics can derail action, especially in an election year. The length of a presidential election means an entire year or more can go by without substantive action being taken on nagging issues, she said.

“We should look at the British system. They have a six- or eight-week election cycle and you have a limit as to how much you can spend.” Rice told Flaum. “Can you imagine only having to listen to Donald Trump for six to eight weeks? We’re going on almost a year now. And these election cycles for president, they’re two years in the making. It’s ridiculous.”

To combat the temptation to engage in play-it-safe politics, Rice noted that, beginning with her time as district attorney in Nassau County, she gave herself a term limit.

“I said, ‘Maybe I’ll run a couple of times, but I’m not going to be here for 30 years,’ which means that I’m going to be really aggressive,” she said.

Another method Rice has used to be productive is getting to know her political opponents. She said she makes a point of sitting with conservative Republicans with whom she disagrees and enjoying their company as people. Finding agreement with those colleagues is the key to getting things done, she said.

Rice held up criminal justice reform as an example. Republicans and Democrats both agree that reform is needed, although for different reasons. The congresswoman predicted reform of sentencing guidelines will be one of the things accomplished this year because of bipartisan support.

Despite gutter-level approval ratings for members of Congress, the job is still an honorable one, Rice said. But it should not be a lifelong job.

“I want to go back to making politics about being an avocation, not a profession,” she said.

Years ago, people left their hometowns, served for eight years and then came back home and went back to work in their previous jobs, she said. The only way people leave Washington now, Rice joked, is “either in a coffin or in handcuffs.”

The near permanent political class and voter apathy have made her a believer in term limits.

“I think if you can’t get stuff done in eight years,” Rice said, “you should hang it up.”

—John Schoonejongen

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