Tillie Fowler, whose roots in Florida politics ran deep, rose to become one of the highest–ranking Republican women in the House. Representative Fowler served on the influential Armed Services Committee, a key assignment since her district encompassed the Jacksonville naval facilities, before honoring a term limit pledge to retire after four terms.
Tillie Kidd was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 23, 1942, daughter of Culver and Katherine Kidd. She was raised in a politically active family; her father served for more than 40 years in the Georgia state legislature. Kidd received an A.B. in political science from Emory University in 1964 and a J.D. from the Emory University School of Law in 1967; she was admitted to the bar that year. She moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a legislative assistant to Representative Robert G. Stephens, Jr., of Georgia from 1967 to 1970. In 1968, she married L. Buck Fowler, and the couple lived in Washington as Tillie Fowler accepted a position as a counsel in the Richard M. Nixon White House Office of Consumer Affairs from 1970 to 1971. The Fowlers moved to Jacksonville in 1971, where they raised two daughters, Tillie Anne and Elizabeth. After more than a decade as a mother and housewife, Tillie Fowler re–entered politics. She was elected to the Jacksonville city council and served from 1985 to 1992 as its first female and, later, as its first Republican president in 1989 to 1990. She also served as chair of the Duval County tourism development council from 1989 to 1990 and chair of the Florida Endowment for the Humanities from 1989 to 1991.1
In 1992, when Democrat Charles E. Bennett, a 22–term Representative, announced his retirement from the House, Fowler entered the race for the northeast Florida seat, which encompassed Jacksonville and portions of St. Johns and Duval counties. Her opponent in the general election was Mattox Hair, a prominent state legislator. With a well–financed campaign that focused on congressional reform and term limits, Fowler won with 56 percent of the vote.2 She ran unopposed in the succeeding three elections. When she entered the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), Fowler was appointed to the Armed Services Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Fowler soon earned a reputation as a moderate conservative who supported budgetary restraint but approved of federal funding of abortions in rape cases, an increase in the minimum wage, and federal funds for the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fowler advocated an overhaul of the welfare system, which she described as “anti–family” in 1993. She also championed increased federal funding for women’s health care and cancer research.
Having first been elected to Congress in the “Year of the Woman,” Fowler believed that women would have a unique impact on the institution but cautioned that most problems could not be solved through the lens of gender. “I think as mothers, home–workers, as people who usually had to juggle a lot of different priorities, we get pretty good at that. I think we bring a different view to issues such as child care,” Fowler said at the time. “But I also don’t believe that there is any one set of issues that is just women’s issues because I think women’s perspective is needed in defense; that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be on the Armed Services Committee. I think women are all concerned with defense issues and I think our perspective is needed there.”3
On the Armed Services Committee, Fowler became a regular critic of the William J. Clinton administration’s defense budgets and foreign policy during the 1990s. As defense budgets were trimmed in the post–Cold War years, Fowler maintained that the cuts were so deep that they affected the military’s core capabilities. Much of her concern came as a Representative with a heavy naval presence in her district, including the Mayport Naval Station and facilities in Jacksonville. She pointed out that defense cuts occurred at a time when the military’s mission had been expanded into peacekeeping and humanitarian causes. Fowler also dissented from the Clinton administration’s policy in the Balkans. She twice visited American troops in the region, praising their work but criticizing the open–ended goals of Washington policymakers who, she said, were attempting an experiment in “nation–building.”4 A longtime opponent of deploying American troops to Bosnia, Fowler nonetheless did not underestimate the significance of U.S. relations with the Balkan nation. “I have supported the involvement of our sea and air forces, our intelligence and logistics assets, and our most diligent diplomatic efforts,” she commented. “But I have never felt that our interests were so vital that they warranted putting our ground troops at risk.”5
Fowler rose quickly through the ranks of the Republican Party. She served as a Deputy Whip in the 105th Congress (1997–1999). In the 106th Congress (1999–2001) she won election as Vice Chair of the GOP Conference, the fifth–ranking Republican position in the House. It made her the highest–ranking woman in the party. During that Congress she also rose to chair the Transportation Subcommittee on Investigations and Emergency Management.
Fulfilling her 1992 campaign pledge to retire after four terms, Fowler did not seek re–election to the 107th Congress (2001–2003). At the time, the move was widely praised as a highly ethical decision, in no small measure because Fowler made it despite her high profile in the Republican leadership. “I take great pride in the fact that we not only changed Congress, but we changed America,” Fowler said upon announcing her retirement.6 In 2001, Fowler joined a Washington–based law firm. In May 2004, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld appointed Fowler as one of four members of an independent panel to investigate abuse of Iraqi prisoners of war. The panel recommended a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. military’s procedures for the handling of prisoners. On February 28, 2005, Fowler suffered a brain hemorrhage while in Jacksonville. She died two days later on March 2.7
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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