From welfare to caviar to Swedish Fish, Rep. Lynn Woolsey has finicky bohemian tastes

Busboys and Poets is not a place one would expect to find a member of Congress. Located on U Street, far removed from the Capitol, the combination bookstore/coffeehouse/restaurant has the ambiance of an urban commune.

Despite single-digit temperatures and frustrating cross-town traffic, this is where Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) chooses to meet for lunch. Latin jazz is playing just loud enough to obscure the din of multilingual chatter from the restaurant, but quiet enough that it doesn’t disturb patrons sprawled out on colorful couches, lost in their laptops. Watching Woolsey scan the room as she waits for a table she called ahead to reserve, it is obvious she feels at home here.

Handshakes in Washington are often robotic rituals — one is rarely mindful of the physical connection taking place. Woolsey’s greeting is conspicuously personal. She embraces my hand with both of hers and holds the moment longer than is customary. The approach is genuine and the effect is charming.

Settling into our booth she confesses a need for cappuccino. Although she drinks more coffee than she should, caffeine isn’t entirely responsible for her frenetic energy. When she was a young girl, she says her grandfather regularly attempted to bribe her with a nickel to sit quietly for a few minutes.

“I never earned a single nickel from him — I just couldn’t do it,” she says. She hastily fans through the menu and immediately settles on spinach salad. Upon hearing me order the vegetable soup, she suggests, almost maternally, that I order bread as well. “You don’t want any bread with that? You really ought to have the bread … the pita.”

Woolsey doesn’t consider herself a foodie but she appreciates quality fare. In her Seattle childhood home, the women did all the cooking. She remembers her grandmother Myrtle cooking artichokes and squab. “Those were pretty exotic foods at the time and even as a kid I enjoyed them,” she says. When asked about her current culinary indulgences, she puts down her fork to think. “Oh, caviar, I love caviar … and raw oysters, although I don’t get to eat them very often.” Chris Shields, her heretofore silent press secretary, politely reminds the congresswoman of her affinity for Swedish Fish, the jelly candy. “I do like those!” she exclaims with a burst of energy, her hands waving wildly as if practicing semaphore, “and Sweet Tarts … and popcorn!”

Most politicians would not readily admit to enjoying caviar out of fear of the elitist image it conjures, but Woolsey is nothing if not true to herself. Her subsequent enthusiasm for store candy was in no way calculated. This might help explain how a single mother of three worked her way off welfare and emerged at the top of a nine-way primary to represent California’s 6th district just north of San Francisco, one of the wealthiest districts in the country. Now a mother of four grown children and five grandchildren, Woolsey’s personal experience of needing and receiving a helping hand from the government greatly influences her legislative agenda.

Her top domestic priority has been a package called “The Balancing Act,” so named because “it helps parents with the one thing they need most, the balance between work and family,” she explains. Its provisions include paid family leave, public pre-school for every family that wants it, benefits for part-time workers, and universal school breakfast. She authored a school-breakfast pilot program that was signed into law by then-President Clinton. When recounting the opposition she faced while trying to pass that legislation she aggressively stabs her fork in to her salad. “People who opposed it would rather spend money on things like war, and tax breaks for the rich,” she says. 

Although many of her constituents do include “the rich” of whom she speaks, Woolsey consistently has won with overwhelming margins. In 2004 she received 72 percent of the vote, and was the top vote-getter of all 53 California House members. She is proud of her popularity but not boastful. “Most of my constituents are comparatively wealthy, so they are educated, so they know the issues. Wealthier and more educated people tend to vote in higher numbers than others,” she reasons.

Her district includes most of Sonoma, home to some of the best vineyards in the world. She enjoys Merlot and Chardonnay. “I prefer the big, full-body Chardonnays,” she says, though “not the acidic ones.” She loves representing the wine industry but is thankful for her neighbor, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), who leads the Congressional Wine Caucus. “It’s hard for me, in terms of perception, to be the champion of children and families with a wine glass in my hand, you know?” she explains. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s how it is. And Mike does such a good job; he really knows his stuff.”

Woolsey is an unapologetic liberal. When asked to choose a dinner companion among any member of Congress throughout history, she selects Bella Abzug, the trailblazing feminist leader from New York. Her contemporary mealtime companions are California Democratic Reps. Maxine Waters and Barbara Lee. She refers to the threesome as “The Triad.” “Together we are quite a force to be reckoned with,” she declares with a twinkle in her eye.

Even among her progressive posse it is hard to find anyone to the left of Woolsey when it comes to the war in Iraq. She has been called the matriarch of the anti-war movement in Congress — a title she welcomes. When speaking of the things she is most passionate about, such as the war, she becomes subdued. She speaks slower, in a softer voice, and her hands fall to her sides. She admits her bill that calls for immediate withdrawal from Iraq is unlikely to succeed. “It’s a pusher for other legislation, really,” she says, looking in to her long-empty mug. After a reflective pause she adds, “Now that Democrats are back in the majority, we have a tremendous responsibility to right what has been wronged.” With that, she gently pushes away her plate as if she’s lost her appetite.