Typically at the end of a calendar year, it is a good time to reflect on the year that was. Mixed in the retrospectives of the year are spotlights on those lost during the year. This year saw two former members of Congress from New Jersey pass away.
Former Congressman Robert Roe passed away in July at the age of 90.
Roe spent 24 years in Congress serving the 8th Congressional District highlighted by his 1991 effort to rework the country’s transportation system and its priorities.
His dedication to improving the nation’s transportation system drew praise from Congressman Bill Pascrell (D-NJ9):
People unknowingly witness Bob’s legacy through the many roads, highways and bridges they travel each and every day. In fact, the federal building which houses my district office is named after him — a fitting tribute to Bob’s work on behalf of the people of New Jersey. As Chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, Bob succeeded in passing a bipartisan transportation reauthorization that both Democrats and Republicans could be proud of. As we struggle with a long term solution to funding the Highway Trust Fund, I only wish we had some of Bob’s bipartisan leadership today.
Before redistricting in 2011, Pascrell served the same district as Roe for over 10 years.
Roe was elected in 1969 to fill a vacancy in Congress left by Congressman Charles Joelson, who became a New Jersey Superior Court Judge. Roe would defeat Gene Boyle in the special election.
During his time in Congress, he twice unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1977 and 1981. He would also rise to become chairman of the House Water Resources subcommittee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Ultimately, he would become chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation during his last term; where he would take aim at his main goal of improving the state of the nation’s transportation.
Roe was so dedicated to his time in Congress that he once reflected:
Some people say, Well, Roe, he’s a workaholic. But if you want to be successful in the Congress, you have to be able to spend the time on it.
Now members of Congress seem like they spend more time campaigning than legislating with the same level of focus as someone like Roe. Moreover, in what would probably viewed as rare if it were to even occur; Roe spent countless time reviewing his prized legislation, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA or “iced tea”), to ensure that it would be something that could benefit each congressional district. Naturally, he did put a primary focus on guaranteeing New Jersey got a good portion of funds.
After reaching the pinnacle of where he wanted to be in Congress, he abruptly decided to retire in 1993. At the time it did not make a lot of sense but with hindsight he may have prevented larger issues for himself over the next couple years. In 1994, the Republicans retook the U.S. House and he would have lost his chairmanship. However, he may have lost it sooner after a drunk driving incident in 1993.
The incident has left a dent in his legacy.
Roe, a Democrat, served alongside Republican Marge Roukema in neighboring districts during half of his time in Congress.
Roukema, who died in November at the age of 85, spent 22 years in Congress after getting elected in 1980. She would defeat Congressman Andrew Maguire that year. She would leave in 2003 after feeling slighted by Republican leadership in the U.S. House when an opportunity arose for her to potentially take a leadership post. A lack of women in leadership roles in still a major struggle for the Republican Party over a decade later.
Like Roe with ISTEA, Roukema too would have a lastly legacy in Congress: the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The legislation allowed employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year to care for a spouse, child, or parent.
The issue hit close to home as she would state in 1993 during a floor speech:
Families are thrown into crisis when serious illness strikes. I know. When my son Todd was stricken with leukemia and needed home care, I was free to remain at home. But what about the millions of mothers who work?
Her son would die from leukemia in 1976 and it would ultimately inspire her to run for Congress in 1978 before winning two years later.
It would take a Democratic president in Bill Clinton to allow her to see the bill she fought for become a law as President George H.W. Bush would veto legislation previously as it was not viewed favorably by the majority of the Republican Party in the early 1990s.
Roukema blunting uttered once,
Clearly my Republican Party does not want to be perceived as the driving force behind a reduction of the capital gains tax for the rich while it turns its back on America’s working families.
When talking about Roukema’s legacy; Ruth Mandel, Director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, would voice:
Very few members of Congress have a signature legacy. Even though she’s not a household word, that’s something you have to say made her tenure in Congress very significant.’
Roukema would spend all but her first two years serving the 5th Congressional District. Before that she served the 7th Congressional District before redistricting moved her to the 5th in 1981.
During an interview about 20 years ago, Roukema would spotlight her dedication to items like the Family and Medical Leave Act:
I wanted to deal with things like banking and finance. But I learned very quickly that if the women like me in Congress were not going to attend to some of these family concerns, whether it was jobs or children, pension equity or whatever, then they weren’t going to be attended to.
Another aspect of her legacy during her time in Congress was a vote in 1994 to ban assault weapons. She was one of eleven Republicans who voted in favor of the bill. Roukema also bucked her party with her stances on campaign finance reform and abortion rights. The combination of such stances generated opposition in primaries from the conservative base in 1998 and 2000 with Scott Garrett challenging her. She would survive those primary challenges. Garrett would eventually follow Roukema after she retired and he has represented the 5th Congressional District since 2003. He embraces a much more conservative philosophy; something that Roukema was noticing late in her tenure regarding the tilt of the district from when she was originally elected in 1980.
After her reelection in 2000, she would become the longest serving woman in the U.S. House and the senior member of the state’s congressional delegation.
Congresswoman-elect Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ12) would speak to Roukema’s trailblazing ways for women in Congress from the state by stating,
We have lost a tremendous leader and state treasure today. Congresswoman Marge Roukema was a standard bearer for many in New Jersey and across the country, as a legislator and as a woman of honor and distinction. A former teacher, Rep. Roukema blazed a trail of common sense in a political climate oftentimes more concerned with partisan outcomes than with real results.
Watson Coleman will be the first woman in the U.S. House from New Jersey since Roukema’s retirement.
Congressman Pascrell would add,
It is with deep sadness that I learned of the passing of my good friend, Congresswoman Marge Roukema. A tireless advocate on behalf of workers and education, Marge was not afraid to reach across the aisle to do what’s best for all Americans. This is an example of the type of bipartisan leadership we could use today. Marge believed in a fiscally conservative budget that did not hurt the working poor or middle class, and was very outspoken on human rights both here at home and abroad. I was also proud to work with Marge on legislation that would protect our nation’s colleges from the threat of deadly fires, along with promoting Italian American culture. New Jersey truly lost a great leader who leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It was an honor to serve with Marge, and my thoughts and prayers go out to her family during this difficult time.
Both Roe and Roukema represented a style of politics where they were not primarily focused on their party or their next election but assisting others and improving the country.