By Sterling C. Beard - 12/17/12 10:00 AM EST
For Rep. Martha Roby (R-Ala.), public service has always been about giving back to her local community.
That hasn’t been a problem for the Montgomery, Ala., native, who has spent much of her professional life working for the people of the Yellowhammer State, first as a member of the Montgomery City Council, and now as their representative in Congress.
Roby did not always plan on working in government, though.
Though she had some vocal talent, her interest lay on the business side, where it soon became apparent she would need an MBA or law degree.
“I was asked by family members to sing in their weddings,” she said with a laugh — “I [don’t think] I was ever good enough to be paid.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1998, Roby applied to and was waitlisted at Brooklyn Law, her first choice.
However, she received a full scholarship at Cumberland Law in Birmingham, Ala., her father’s alma mater. It was during her first semester there that she met her husband, Riley.
It wasn’t long before they were engaged, and attended her younger brother’s high school graduation.
The speaker that day talked about the “brain drain” that saw many of Alabama’s most talented people leaving the state for opportunities elsewhere rather than staying and giving back.
Up to that point, Roby had intended to make her way to Nashville, Tenn., but she and her husband-to-be decided to stay in Alabama. They now live across the street from her childhood home, where her parents still reside.
After a few years of practicing law with the firm of Copeland, Franco, Screws & Gill, P.A., Roby and Riley watched as their city councilwoman announced her retirement — after 20 years of service — on the evening news. Roby decided then and there to run for the vacant seat.
“I [told Riley], if we’re going to be here and live here and, God willing, have children some day, I want to be engaged. I want to be involved.”
Still, she was 26 years old and had only been a practicing lawyer for three years, disadvantages she realized she’d have to overcome if she was to have a chance of winning the seat.
“If I [wanted] people to take me seriously,” she told The Hill, “then I [had] to get out there and work harder than everybody.”
She won the seat in District 7, the “most socially and economically diverse council district in Montgomery” according to her website, and went on to serve almost two full terms.
During her tenure, she worked to promote conservative policies, including a city ordinance to prevent businesses from hiring illegal aliens. She also fought against five proposed tax increases in 2008 alone.
“Nothing could’ve prepared me more for being in Congress than being a staff of one, [answering] every email, every phone call,” Roby said. “I had my home telephone number in the phone book. It was incumbent upon me and only me to make sure that the people that I represented had a voice at city hall, and that their requests were dealt with.”
That attitude led to her meeting her future communications director, Todd Stacy, when she knocked on his front door while following up on complaints about trash collection in his neighborhood.
Roby says she places a premium on constituency work.
Even with all the advantages that come with being an elected member of Congress, such as district offices and staff, the “underlying principle is the same,” Roby said, “and that is availability and accountability to the people that you represent.”
She passed up the chance to run for Mayor of Montgomery in 2009 when Bobby Bright vacated the office to represent Alabama’s second congressional district.
She was pregnant at the time with her second child, George, who was born a week before the special election to fill the mayorship.
“Politics is all about timing, just like most things in life,” Roby said.
“About eight weeks later, my husband and I [started] talking about this job, and that we felt like because of our children, because we didn’t feel like the direction of our country was moving ... that urge to be engaged, to be a part of it, kind of took over.”
Roby defeated Tea Party favorite Rick Barber in a runoff in the GOP primary in 2010 before going on to narrowly beat Bright (D), the incumbent congressman and her former colleague from Montgomery. She impressed the party enough that she served on the GOP transition team, a 22-member panel tasked with reforming House rules to provide greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the 112th Congress.
Her streak for local service surfaced again when she backed a restructured House calendar that would give representatives more time to spend in their home districts, believing it provided the chance for constituents to hold lawmakers accountable.
She won reelection in a landslide this year, defeating Democrat Therese Ford with 64 percent of the vote, the first time in three elections that the margin of victory has been over 5,000 votes.
However, her bid to become the vice-chairwoman of the House Republican Conference fell short. Had she succeeded in winning the chairmanship, she would have become the first Alabaman in a House Republican leadership position since Jack Edwards was the Republican Conference Secretary in the late 1970s.