It takes an indomitable spirit and abundant energy to be a Democrat in the U.S. Congress these days, and Zoe Lofgren has both. “I’d love to brag about all the bills of mine that have passed,” she says, “but as a member of the minority, my bills don’t get scheduled for hearing.”
Lofgren has represented District 16, spanning San Jose to San Martin, since 1995. She was a legislative assistant to District 16 Congressman Don Edwards from 1970 to 1978. Edwards and Lofgren are the only two to hold this seat since the district was created in 1963.
Lofgren enrolled in law school after being horrified at how badly she had drafted a proposed bill for her boss. “I was a low-level staffer,” she recalls. “We had learned of a widow in her 80’s who had had her widow’s benefits reduced to zero because of an accounting error. I drafted a bill so this wouldn’t happen to others. When legislative counsel took a look at it, I saw how poorly drafted it was. An SCU alumnus, Alan Parker, had been urging me to go to law school, and he literally stood over me while I filled out the application.”
Lofgren was a partner in an immigration law firm from 1978 to 1980 and taught immigration law as an adjunct professor at Santa Clara Law. Meanwhile, with her election in 1979 to the board of the San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, her career in community leadership was beginning. In 1981 she became a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and in 1994, she was elected to Congress.
Lofgren is very tied to her roots: she was born in San Mateo and attended Palo Alto public schools through high school. She earned her B.A. in political science from Stanford in 1970. (Her son is now studying English at Stanford and her daughter is a law student at Boston University.) She returns home to her district (and to her husband, John Marshall Collins) every week.
In assessing her accomplishments, she often refers to the differences she has made at the local level, such as getting affordable Internet services into the public schools in San Jose or helping drug users get treatment while in jail.
Lofgren says she would like to be known for “standing up for people who don’t otherwise have a voice—not only poor people, but average working people, the kind of family I grew up in, where people work hard to raise their kids and don’t have access to power. These are the people making America work,” she says.
Lofgren’s goal for the near future is to become chair of the House Subcommittee on Immigration. With her background in practicing and teaching immigration law, she sees the need for changes. “One much needed change is re-establishing judicial discretion so that judges can make sure that just results occur, especially for immigrant children,” says Lofgren.
Another goal is the passage of the Dream Act, to allow high school-aged immigrant children who are college bound to go to college and earn legalization. Lofgren cites an example of a young man who had a nearly perfect score on the English portion of the SAT and a perfect score on the math portion but was facing deportation. “He came to the U.S. legally on a visa when he was a young child, but his parents didn’t follow through on his immigration documents. He risks being deported to a country he has no memory of and whose language he doesn’t speak. Children should not have to suffer for the mistakes of their parents,” she says.
For her to become chair of the immigration subcommittee requires that the Democrats regain their majority in Congress. In the meantime, Lofgren continues facing the biggest challenge of all, “being in the minority of an institution that is increasingly ‘winner take all’ and dysfunctionally partisan. In the 70s, the practice meant that the minority had to be consulted, but not any more. We end up with monster bills in the middle of the night and no one knows what’s hidden in them.”
Being a woman in Congress is an additional challenge, as shown by the “little lady from California” comment.
Despite these frustrations, Lofgren is heartened when young people, men and women, say that her leadership has encouraged them to pursue public service. “I have had people tell me that I have been a role model in encouraging them to step into public life when they otherwise might have been afraid to,” she says. “This is very satisfying.”