By Sterling C. Beard - 02/25/13 10:00 AM EST
People are a product of their upbringing, and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) is no exception.
“I grew up in a bipartisan household,” Kirkpatrick said, noting that her mother was a Republican and her father a Democrat. “It made for lively dinner discussions, but it also instilled in me a real respect for differing points of view.”
“Certainly that [consideration of opposing beliefs] is also present in Native American culture and communities,” Kirkpatrick said.
She added “that respect for each other, listening to each other, trying to reach a consensus and finding a solution” forms a large part of her approach to Congress.
Kirkpatrick’s first language was Apache, and she is learning Navajo; both are handy to know in a district that is roughly 25 percent Native American. As a result, she is used to talking to people in their own language and connecting with them at a cultural level.
“Being able to speak a language ... helps you understand the people,” Kirkpatrick said. “And being able to talk with people in their own language builds that connection.”
The trickiest tongue that Kirkpatrick knows is also the one that has arguably been most valuable to her as she has navigated the political waters of a broadly conservative state: centrism.
Kirkpatrick voted for President Obama’s stimulus bill but believes that federal spending is a problem. When cap and trade legislation came before the House in 2009, she broke ranks with the majority of her party to vote against it, and she opposed the cash-for-clunkers program as well.
She is a supporter of the DREAM Act, but says that any immigration strategy must deal with “the illegal component, the drug trafficking, the guns trafficking, the human trafficking across the border.” Indeed, many of the bills Kirkpatrick introduced during her first term in Congress focused on reducing violence at the border, a concern for residents of a congressional district that has more square mileage than the state of Illinois and is roughly 100 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.
The results-first attitude even drove Kirkpatrick to read the Affordable Care Act in its entirety before she voted on it. She wanted to allay concerns over issues like a Native American disqualification for preexisting conditions, allowing children to stay on their parents’ insurance until the age of 26, and the Medicare donut hole.
“It was the right thing for the people in my district,” she said.
Indeed, her career as an attorney put her in a prime position to be one of the few who could understand the act’s effects as a whole. Prior to serving in Congress, Kirkpatrick worked as an attorney for Flagstaff Medical Center, a regional hospital, for almost 27 years.
Kirkpatrick had two terms in the state House when she first sought election to Congress in 2008. The scandal-ridden Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.) announced he would not seek a fourth term after the federal government indicted him on corruption charges. She rode the enthusiasm of the Obama wave to 56 percent of the vote and victory over Republican and anti-tax activist Sydney Hay. She became only the third Democrat to represent the district since its inception in 1948, and its first female representative. If she is able to hold the seat in the 2014 midterm elections, she will become the longest tenured Democrat in the history of the district.
Like many other freshman Democrats, she was a casualty of the Tea Party wave of 2010 that wiped out a Democratic majority in the House, felled by Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.). She went back to practicing law, doing work she could do “on [her] kitchen table,” as she put it, and considered opening up a law office again.
However, redistricting made her old seat much more favorable territory on which to fight, and Gosar opted to stand for election in the 4th congressional district rather than face a rematch. She recaptured Arizona’s 1st congressional district in a close election over Republican Jonathan Paton.
Kirkpatrick has not wasted any time getting back into the swing of things. She recently cosponsored a bill with Gosar — whom she magnanimously refers to as “the gentleman who unseated me in 2010” — that would create the largest copper mine in North America while holding true to her view that federal jobs bills should consist of action, not spending. The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 would allow a private company to swap environmentally sensitive land it owns with mineral rich soil the federal government holds.
Both Kirkpatrick and Gosar had submitted similar bills in previous Congresses, and according to Kirkpatrick, it wasn’t difficult to work with her former foe from across the aisle.
“We got started right away,” she said. “I am a centrist. I’m looking for good ideas, I don’t care what party they come from. Let’s work together for the good of the American people.”