A Foxx at home in the jungle

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) is anything but a wallflower.

The 61-year-old freshman congresswoman storms into the Botanical Gardens one morning recently — or, more fittingly, she takes the gardens by storm. Before going through the security panels, she makes a beeline for the information booth.

 
 


Wherever Foxx goes, her outstretched hand precedes her. She wants to meet everyone. Beware: She will small-talk anyone who comes within a 10-foot radius. “I’m Congresswoman Virginia Foxx,” she says, with a slight twang and a large degree of authority.

 The Botanical Gardens are just two blocks from the Capitol, so the members of the garden staff are not fazed by lawmaker sightings. They react to Foxx affably, shuffling her along with the rest of the tourists.

The first room is a misty, humid, joyous space. The warm air, classical music and mist cascading from the ceiling all make for a fantasyland experience. Foxx is beside herself. A self-proclaimed garden lover, she and her husband, Tom, have owned Grandfather Mountain Nursery and Landscaping, at the foot of Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, for almost 30 years.

Foxx knows her ferns.

“Look at the digitalis, it’s spectacular!” she exclaims, bending down to grab a plant by its stem. She says she has some in her yard at home in Banner Elk. “They seed themselves. They only last two years.”

(Digitalis plants are in the figwort family, which includes foxgloves — no relation to Foxx. Foxglove leaves contain the drug digitalis, which is used to treat heart disease.)

Her flower of choice (lobbyists take note) is the gardenia. “I like anything that smells good,” she says. “I cut the hyacinth in my yard. I gave them to the women in the Greensboro airport. That’s one of my greatest joys of my life, to grow flowers and give them away.”

Foxx is petite, thin and a no-makeup sort of gal. She dresses in sensible black flats, a sensible gray pantsuit and a single sensible strand of pearls. Her white hair is cut short.

So she’s the sensible type, but crazy in a funny way, too.

“The digitalis is fabulous!” she booms, again. She has spotted more of the stuff on the other side of the garden, and her urge to touch becomes apparently overwhelming. She passes her handbag to her press secretary, Amy Auth, and sallies forth.

This is no minor-league plant watching. The digitalis, cinnamon and other herbs in her vicinity cower. Well, they might if they could.

Foxx’s personality is half-grandmother, half-drill sergeant. After realizing my name is Betsy — as opposed to, say, Misty — she apologizes and begins ordering her small entourage to stop and smell the gardenias.

“Ooh,” she squeals, “look at that! Come on guys, smell that. Isn’t it wonderful?”

The congresswoman sits down on a bench in front of a clump of gardenias and begins explaining the personality of the flower. Is it like her own?

“They are a fairly rare and endangered species,” she says. “They need a lot of moisture. They are very difficult to grow. They need a lot of sunshine.”

Foxx’s secret gardenia tip? Give it a cup of coffee once a month.

Just then a tourist strolls through — and is intercepted by Foxx, who asks, “You from Wheaton? That’s where the Speaker is from!”

 The woman nods and smiles, uncertain if she should care where Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) lives.

Foxx was born in the Bronx, N.Y., but was raised primarily in the small town of Crossmore, N.C. Her home had no electricity or running water. Her father was a painter and a paperhanger; her mother worked odd jobs — restaurant work, hotel maid and weaver. Foxx, the eldest of three children, went to work as a weaver at 12 and learned to use a hand loom.

What were her ambitions? “I certainly didn’t have any idea I’d wind up in Congress, I’ll tell you that. Basically I was trying to get out of poverty.”

 During her senior year of high school, Foxx worked as a school janitor. She graduated third in her class and had no plans to attend college: “No one in the family had graduated from high school, let alone college.”

But Foxx went on to college, earned her master’s degree in teaching and became an English teacher. She taught sociology at Appalachian State University. And she served in the North Carolina state Senate for a decade.

 Last year, she entered one of the nastiest primaries in the country and beat a Republican opponent, Ed Broyhill, son of a well-known state senator. She then won a runoff against City Councilman Vernon Robinson. “You know, I was not supposed to be here,” she says.

 Life in Congress isn’t without its bumps. This is where Foxx says her faith comes in: “The pace is very frenetic, and I don’t think there is anything that can be done about it. My life experiences have prepared me well to be here. Almost every day I get an affirmation that God wants me to use my skills and talents here.

“There were times during the campaign when my faith was shaken, but I’ve tried to discern the will of God in my life and I felt this was his will. When I would have my doubts, something positive would happen.”

Foxx’s religious upbringing is complex. “I was baptized as a Catholic and then attended a Baptist church and was baptized as a Baptist,” she explains.

“My faith comes from having attended church on a regular basis all my life. Primarily it comes from my strong feeling that God is leading me in what I’m doing, that God is with me in every moment of every day.”

When Foxx can’t make it to the First Baptist Church in Blowing Rock, she watches church on TV.

But back to the jungle. We make our way through the darkest, most exotic room of them all. Fantastic and huge plants hang everywhere.

But the talk has turned political: “I am conservative in the sense that I think the federal government should have a very narrow role in my life,” she says. “The primary role is the defense of this country.

“Our taxes are too high. We need to reduce taxes, give people more money and let them be in charge of their lives.”

President Bush couldn’t have said it better. Foxx also supports teaching sexual abstinence in schools but insists that school boards ought to decide, not the federal government.

She insists she isn’t always with the Republican Party, although she offers no evidence to the contrary: “I’m not in lock step with anybody. The good Lord provided me a good brain and the ability to make decisions on what is right and wrong.”

What does she make of the ethics accusations against Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas)? “It’s a witch hunt, pure and simple,” she says. “If it weren’t DeLay it would be someone else. The reason they are going after him so strongly is because he is so effective.”

When asked about lawmakers taking golfing trips to places such as Scotland, she waves me off and won’t listen to another word: “You know, there are a lot of allegations and not a lot of substance. The media is intent on spreading the allegations with no real basis to them.”

 Foxx’s political TV diet is confined to the Fox News Channel (again, no relation). “It is the only thing I watch,” she says, sounding like an ad for the station. “I watch it because it’s reasonably fair and balanced.” (Did she really just say that?)

 “You can’t say [Fox commentator] Juan Williams is conservative. He is as biased and liberal as they come.”

 Foxx’s weekday schedule is incredible: In the office by 7 a.m. to read newspapers and answer e-mails; by 8 p.m. she’s back, doing paperwork and answering e-mails until 1 a.m.; in bed by 1:30-2 a.m.

“Caffeine has no impact on me at all,” she says, differentiating herself from a gardenia. “I use no stimulants. It’s the work that stimulates me.”

Walking back toward the open, airy, misty room where we began, Foxx marvels over the Costa Rican skullcap (a muscle relaxant) and the ferns: “A lot of people don’t understand the importance of plants to our lives. A lot of pharmaceuticals are based in plants.”

Suddenly she’s kneeling into some foliage. “I love ferns,” she says, manhandling another thick, green stem. “I love seeing things grow.”