The high-heeled adventuress

Rep. Madeleine Zeien Bordallo is glamorous.

With long legs, a trim figure, big blue eyes and short, highlighted blond hair piled stylishly high on her head, Bordallo bears a striking resemblance to Ivana Trump. She has French-manicured nails and perfectly painted and lined red lips. Her striking gold jewelry includes chain bracelets and a thick wedding band with a whopping diamond.

Her clothing is more dignitary than congressional. She wears a form-fitting Anne Klein red-and-pink tweed jacket and skirt that skims above the knees and Italian dark red leather sling-back heels.

Rahim
 


The Democratic delegate from Guam sits posture-perfect in a black leather club chair in an immaculate office on Cannon’s fourth floor. The navy-blue carpet is smooth and vacuumed. Every knickknack is just so; every wooden rhinoceros and glass object is in its place.

All appearances are right, but Bordallo is not just about appearances. She is only in her second term in Congress, yet has sponsored six bills that are now law.

Bordallo was born in small-town Minnesota but has traveled far since then. Most recently, she was first lady and then lieutenant governor of Guam. She had to adjust again when she got to Capitol Hill — not least, perhaps, to not having a chauffeur anymore — but, she says, “I’m pretty relaxed now. I’m getting used to it.”

Her first hometown, Graceville, had a population of 671. Until she turned 14, Bordallo and her family hopscotched across Minnesota from one small town to another — Maple Lake, Browerville — as her father was a superintendent of schools. She spent her summers at a Catholic camp.

Her mother had an adventurous spirit and one day came across an ad in a magazine for a high school principal in Guam. She persuaded her husband to apply, he was accepted and the family embarked for an island they’d barely heard of.

Bordallo was busy at Camp Glengarta at the time her parents pulled her out to move halfway across the world. “That was very disappointing to me,” Bordallo recalls. “I was a junior counselor in horseback riding.”

It was 1948, and the family — Bordallo was the eldest of three children — arrived in Guam in September. The voyage took 17 days. She remembers being struck by the sight of the palm trees, by the heat and by the hospitality of the people of Guam — the Chomorro, a mix of Micronesian, Spanish and American.

“You just fall in love with it,” she says, beaming.

Bordallo has a regal air and impeccable manners. She offers her guest coffee and then begins her dramatic story.

“I ended up marrying a local governor,” she says, explaining that she met Ricky Bordallo at a Christmas party for Bank of America. “We were very social on Guam,” she says. “I was dressed up in a nice dress. I was a very good dancer. He said I was the most beautiful girl in the room, but he also told my sister that too.”

Bordallo looks up and gives this dry, deadpan look, as if to say, “I was not falling for that.” And she didn’t: “We didn’t think much of him, that’s for sure.”

But Ricardo “Ricky” Bordallo, the third son in a wealthy family of 16 children that was often equated with the Kennedys, was persistent in his wooing. By the time she went to St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., and later to St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, Minn., to major in music, he had persuaded her to write him daily.

Again, the deadpan reaction: “I didn’t get a letter every day, that’s for sure.”

But she did receive a phone call. It was the second trans-Pacific phone call ever made.

In 1953, the couple were married by a Spanish bishop in a large, formal wedding with eight bridesmaids and groomsmen. Among the guests was the governor of Guam.

The couple had a daughter, Deborah. Bardallo now has a granddaughter, Nicole.

In 1954, Ricky Bordallo ran for senator. “I was very new to politics,” recalls Bordallo, “but I was a very dutiful wife. That’s just the way I am, and I would still be that way today if I were married. I was very Chomorro in my ways. It was comfortable for me. The man was the head of the house.”

Bordallo helped her husband’s campaign, which she describes as “real Western” in that it involved putting signs on trees and telephone poles. “I was out there helping him,” she says. “He called me his secret weapon.”

And so, when he lost that first race, she was crushed. “Very ashamed,” she says. “How was I going to face the people? He sat me down, wiped the tears and said, ‘You’re going back to work. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.’”

Ricky Bordallo later won seven terms as senator and served two terms as governor. In 1978, he convinced his wife that it was her turn to run. “I was a little hesitant,” she says. “My husband gave me a stronger personality than I had. I was conservative, shy. He had a very forceful personality.”

But dutifully, Bordallo spent three months going door to door. She took a four-wheel-drive vehicle and visited the ranches. Her husband, ever supportive, would meet her on the road with Coke and chocolates.

“I hit every house,” she recalls proudly. “I came out No. 1. I beat everyone. I had a real good handle on people’s problems.”

She served five terms in the Guam Legislature. From 1995 to 2002, she served two consecutive terms as the island’s first female lieutenant governor.

Bordallo recalls her days as first lady with a dreamy nostalgia. “I have a very colorful life, believe me,” she says. “I traveled extensively to every country in the world. We went to the Middle East, Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, South America.”

Bordallo says her mission in Congress is to educate other lawmakers about Guam and its needs. That is difficult, she concedes, because as a territory Guam doesn’t have a vote in Congress, but sitting on the Armed Services Committee, the Resources Committee and in the Democratic Caucus, where she can vote, is enough for now.

She marvels at how clueless some of her colleagues are about Guam, and recalls one male lawmaker asking, “‘Isn’t Guam part of Hawaii?’”

Guam, she says, is a seven-and-a-half-hour flight from Hawaii. “I hate to say this, but a lot of members of Congress are not aware of Guam. They just don’t know a lot about it.” She has led six congressional delegations, or codels, there to try to change that.

Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who went on one of Bordallo’s codels, calls her “classy and professional. She has an air about her that’s ... fun to be around because she doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

He recalls a trip Bordallo made to Seely Lake, Mont., when she toured a mill in high heels. “It made the newspaper that she was in open-toed shoes touring a lumber mill,” Rehberg recalls. “She carries herself well all the time.”

Bordallo returns to Guam about once a month. It’s a trip that takes 19 hours; she flies from Washington to Houston to Honolulu to Guam.

Here in Washington, she lives at the Watergate. “It’s very nice for someone like me,” she says. “Very secure.”

The congresswoman says she’s a good fit here because she’s accustomed to the lifestyle.

“I love to entertain,” she says. “Being single is not real easy in Washington. I’d like to go out a lot more than I do, to the embassy parties, but I don’t like to go alone.”

In 1990, the same year that Bordallo ran for governor and lost, her husband wrapped himself in the Guam flag, chained himself to a statue and shot himself. He had been charged with bribery and killed himself to avoid a prison term.

“It was very difficult for me for a while,” she says softly. “He ran into some problems with donations to his campaign. He never blamed anyone but himself. To this day, people love my husband very much.”

At the time of his death, Bordallo was still serving as a senator. “With an unexpected death, you have to be busy right away,” she says. “It is the best therapy for anybody. You just have to carry on.”

And carry on she did. “The minute my husband died, people were in my house. We had rosaries for nine days before the funeral Mass. There were 35,000 people who viewed my husband’s body when he died.”

Has she come to terms with her husband’s suicide, now that 15 years have passed?

“Yes. Knowing his personality, I think he didn’t want to put us through any more than we had,” she says. “I know he’d be proud if he saw me today.”

In the end, politics wins for Bordallo. But at another time in her life, another passion took hold.

“I’m a classical singer,” she says. “My teachers had great plans for me — opera, Broadway, all that.”

She still sings at weddings and, if she were not a politicians, she would likely be singing in an opera house somewhere, she says, “but don’t write that!” she adds in a loud whisper and a laugh.