U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster pushes constituent services to bolster bipartisan credentials

Last modified: 11/4/2014 7:29:13 PM
In 2012, U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster campaigned for Congress on two major promises: to end tax breaks for corporations that ship jobs overseas, and to freeze congressional pay until the budget is balanced.

Did she fulfill those pledges?

It may be unfair to evaluate any member of the 113th Congress on their accomplishments, considering all sides agree Congress has become paralyzed by partisanship.

Kuster co-sponsored bills that could have achieved those promises she made two years ago, but most are still languishing in committees. She voted for a continuing resolution that funded the government without raises for Congress.

“I think people are discouraged. Look, I’m discouraged,” Kuster said. “Congress is dysfunctional under Speaker Boehner, and it’s been very challenging, but I feel I can be part of the solution to be more responsive through a new approach, bringing people together and being less vitriolic, working to find common ground.”

She’s done that with Roger Noonan, president of the New England Farmers Union and owner of Middle Branch Farm in New Boston. As president of the farmers union, Noonan is nonpartisan. Personally, he’s a registered Republican. But he’ll be voting for Kuster, he said.

Shortly after she was elected, he sent a letter to her office, saying the farm bill and the Food Safety Modernization Act were issues she’d have to pay attention to, and asking what her positions were.

“Not only did she respond, she invited me to her office to get more information, and then she sought a seat on the agriculture committee,” he said.

“A lot of us advocated (in 2010) with our members of Congress that this was something we should be concerned about, but they didn’t give it a lot of truck,” Noonan said.

Kuster “bought into the importance of our farm economy, the environmental stewardship, the impact we have on tourism. She gets the whole package of the value of farms to the state of New Hampshire, and she listened,” Noonan said.

Farmers, Noonan said, don’t all feel the Food and Drug Administration was out to get them, but feel officials were advised in writing the rules by lobbyists for major agribusiness farms, which run differently than family-owned operations.

“They don’t know what they don’t know. This was a rule written by the largest players to serve the interests of the largest players,” he said “She really led, and I mean led, an effort to put pressure on the FDA to come to New England and hold listening sessions here.

“And this was a clear example of not marching lock-step, of bucking the (Obama) administration. I mean, the FDA is in the executive branch, and she’s telling them they’re doing something wrong and they better fix it,” he said.

Compared with Obama

Yet marching in lockstep with President Obama has been one of the most frequent attacks lobbed at Kuster in this election cycle. Her opponent in the 2nd Congressional District, Salem Republican Marilinda Garcia, uses every opportunity she can find to call Kuster a “rubber stamp” and quote a time Kuster called herself the biggest supporter of Obama in the Congress.

Kuster has dominated the race in terms of fundraising, with a war chest of more than $3.3 million compared with Garcia’s $950,000, but Garcia has had support from several outside groups running ads and printing mailers.

“In that district, you’re going to be nationalized, and you’re going to be compared to the president, which is tough because you’re just trying to be one of 435 members and do your own thing,” Neil Levesque of the Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College said.

What Kuster wants to do is focus on a record she says shows a bipartisan commonsense approach to legislation.

The class of freshman legislators that joined Kuster in D.C. in 2012 was a big one, 70 in all, with many districts that had elected Tea Party candidates in 2010 swinging back and electing new faces again.

Though she joined the Congressional Progressive Caucus when she first arrived, she left that group and joined 30 other freshmen, members of both parties, in a forming a group called the United Solutions caucus.

“If the tea party class of 2010 was elected to stand athwart trillion-dollar deficits, yelling ‘Stop!,’ the 2012 class seems to think it was elected to give peace a chance,” Roll Call, the “newspaper of Capitol Hill,” wrote about the group’s announcement.

The group’s purpose was not to introduce legislation. It’s foundational mission “tilts toward the GOP’s focus on spending cuts. The political significance of the movement seems to be the willingness of freshmen Democrats to embrace changes to entitlement programs,” Roll Call wrote.

For Kuster, it’s been an opportunity to meet regularly with members of the other party.

“We come together on a regular basis to seek solutions, to seek common ground to move the country forward,” she said.

It’s also where she met Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana, her co-sponsor for a piece of legislation she’s been promoting on the campaign trail: whistleblower protections for victims of military sexual assaults.

“She’s a very conservative Republican, and we don’t agree on everything, but we’ve created a friendship where we feel very strongly on the issue of how people are treated in the military,” Kuster said.

Getting the House to pass that bill is something Kuster counts among her proudest accomplishments.

‘Comfortable as a candidate’

Garcia’s campaign has also recently dredged up old attacks and mistakes, running an ad based on Kuster’s missed property tax payments from 2010 through 2013. During the candidates’ last debate, Garcia brought up Kuster’s time lobbying in the State House, including work she did for a European drug company that makes Rohypnol, the so-called date rape drug.

The attacks – old or new – aren’t really sticking, according to the most recent poll released by the UNH Survey Center, showing Kuster with a 23-point lead among likely voters.

It was a surprisingly large gap for some watching the race, given the many times in her previous two campaigns Kuster deflated her own momentum and failed to deflect attacks from her opponent.

There was the time during the 2012 race she grabbed a camera from an opposition tracker, and was caught on mike saying “F him.” There was the town hall meeting about tensions in the Middle East where she dismissed questions about the attacks on the Benghazi embassy as off topic.

There was Charlie Bass’s attack ad that year accusing her of dancing around the issues and featuring a Kuster look-alike in a blue suit dancing while a narrator demonized her support of Obamacare.

This time, there have been few if any unforced errors, the political observers say.

“I didn’t expect her to get in the comfort level she got into,” Levesque said. “She is very comfortable as a candidate, she’s very easy going.”

He watched her arrive at the last candidates’ debate at WMUR’s Manchester television studio.

Supporters for both candidates stood outside the building holding signs and waving. Normally, candidates drive in and head straight for backstage.

“I saw her run out and just start hugging her supporters, walking through the line, cheering with them,” Levesque said. “She was enthusiastic, she was relaxed, and it showed.”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

This story has been updated to correctly reflect the passage of the whistleblower protection act Ann Kuster sponsored. It passed the House on its own, and the House and Senate as an amendment in the House and Senate National Defense Authorization Act.

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