"Democrat sounds like a curse word"

What makes a politician? For Jean Schmidt, the new congresswoman for Ohio’s 2nd District, the catalyst was a bad word. 

Flashback to 1960. It’s Nixon versus Kennedy on the TV screens of the nation, and Schmidt, a young girl growing up on an Ohio dairy farm, follows the race with rapt fascination.

Patrick G. Ryan
Jean Schmidt

One night, coming down from brushing her teeth, Schmidt sees the words Democrat and Republican in an open newspaper. Curious, she asks her mother what the terms mean, and after hearing her mother’s explanation Schmidt exclaims: “I want to be a Republican!”

Her mother, a Democrat, was dismayed, but little Jean held her ground. “I said no,” Schmidt explains four decades later, “Democrat sounds like a curse word … damn,” as in Damn-o-crat.

A social conservative, Schmidt was elected to the Ohio Assembly in 2000 after many years as a trustee for Miami Township. In 2004 she ran for the Ohio Senate, only to come up short in a recount by a scant 22 votes. But when President Bush chose Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSenators debate new business deduction, debt in tax law hearing Tax rules will be subject to more OMB review under new memo Ending sex trafficking tomorrow requires preventing child abuse today MORE last spring to be the U.S. trade representative, Schmidt threw her hat into the ring for the vacated seat. 

Then came the fireworks. Historically, Ohio’s 2nd, the southern edge of the state just east of Cincinnati, is as red as rare meat and an easy take for a Republican. But Schmidt’s Democratic opponent, a telegenic veteran of the Iraq war named Paul Hackett, waged an agile, sharp-tongued campaign, needling Schmidt with the accusation that she would do little more in Congress than be a “rubber stamp” for the GOP (Hackett held a press conference in front of a rubber-stamp store in Cincinnati to highlight this charge).

While Schmidt ultimately triumphed in a race that became a nationally covered dogfight, she posted only a 4 percent margin of victory, the worst Republican showing in the district since 1974. 

While her tenure on the Hill is barely past 50 days — her swearing in was Sept. 6 — Schmidt’s office has the energy and flow of a longer occupancy. 

This electrical hum may be attributable to the congresswoman’s own gloriously uncensored personality. As a marathon runner and the child of a race-car driver — she once told a reporter she’d “rather smell ethanol than Chanel No. 5” — Schmidt has a crackling intensity that instantly buzzes up a room. This is true when she talks of war and trade, but Schmidt is no less relentless about the simpler things, such as the decorating kinks to be resolved in her office.

Schmidt’s intention was to decorate her office with paintings and photographs depicting all the covered bridges in the 2nd District. Until recently, she was unable to find a picture of the Pike County Bridge, but she persevered and now has three pictures of that errant structure that are being framed. 

“Mission accomplished on my bridges,” she says.

But why bridges? 

“We had people here who were taking pictures of me, and they said, ‘How are you going to decorate your walls?’ and I just randomly said, ‘Covered bridges,’” she says. “It’s just so neat.” 

When conversation turns to the legal turmoil facing former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Schmidt is not so much neat as forceful. She has a golden hammer on her lapel, a symbol of her fealty to the besieged leader, and denounces his prosecutor as unscrupulous and the press as unfair: “He’s been convicted of nothing. And, you know, if he is innocent, and I believe he is, shame on the media for doing this to him.” 

The cruelest blow, in Schmidt’s opinion, was DeLay’s loss of the trappings of leadership after so many years spent grappling for power. 

“You’re a four-star general, and suddenly someone creates an accusation and you’re reduced to a buck private,” Schmidt says by way of analogy. “You’re still in the Army, but literally he [DeLay] is at the same level I am and I’ve only been here 54 days.” 

Schmidt then concedes that DeLay’s fall is perhaps not quite that precipitous: “He’s still Tom DeLay, and I still support him … at this point.” 

Schmidt is a Buckeye born and raised, so it comes as no surprise that she’s most engaged and articulate when discussing her home state and the upcoming elections. Many pundits foresee a dark and turbulent year for the Ohio GOP, mired in the “Coingate” scandal and dragged under by the dead weight of ultra-unpopular Gov. Bob Taft (polling about 15 percent).

Schmidt, however, is more optimistic about the races at her end of the state, where she doesn’t foresee any major changes in 2006.

“We may lose the governor’s race,” she says. “I can’t say who’s going to win that. [Rep.] Ted Strickland [D] is certainly capturing the attention right now, but then we haven’t seen which Republican candidate is going to surface out of the mix. … I mean sometimes I think people get a little itchy and they might want some change.” 

Schmidt treats that prospect with apparent equanimity but condemns Democrat-sponsored ballot proposals that went before voters Nov. 8 under a “Reform Ohio Now” banner as the attempted hijack of Ohio’s elections by MoveOn.org. But her enmity is directed not just at left-wing b�tes-noires such as George Soros but also at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican governor of California. 

When she heard that Schwarzenegger had endorsed Ohio’s Issue 4, a redistricting measure seen by Schmidt as a recipe for gerrymandering, she called the Governator’s chief of staff and told him what she thought about it.

Schmidt says, “I actually told him to get out of my playground. I wasn’t in his.” 

The measure failed by a ratio of more than 2-1. The other proposals in the reform package were similarly rejected.

Unlike more veteran politicos, weathered by long years in Washington, Schmidt still has faith and heart. While some Republicans are distancing themselves from the administration’s war plans, Schmidt says she is foursquare behind the president.

“We’re free, we’re educated, we’re Christian, we’re Jewish, we’re white, we’re African-American and not Middle Eastern, we have interracial marriages, all the things they can’t stand,” she says of the Muslim terrorists.

“I want to give the Iraqis and the Afghanistan people the ability to create their own democracy.” Schmidt expands. “It’s like building a house and putting a foundation in. … Until that house is what we call “under roof,” weather can damage the structure. We have to get their democracies under roof so that we can leave and they can build out their product.” 

And then the rare and unexpected thing occurs: Deep into this discussion of the Middle East, Schmidt’s eyes suddenly close, her voice hushes, she lifts her hands slightly and channels the better angels of her foreign-policy analysis: “When the Lord wants you to be … the best you can be … there’s a thing inside us … that wants to be free … no matter what country we’re from.”

She is evidently a woman of high emotion. When asked to name her favorite book, she unhesitatingly but blushingly says Gone With The Wind — “because I want to hope that he takes her back. It’s a love story.” 

A year from now, the congresswoman will be running for her seat again. We’ll find out if Washington is Schmidt’s own Rhett Butler and wants to take her back too.