During her nearly quarter century in the House, Nancy L. Johnson became the first Republican woman to gain a seat on the influential Ways and Means Committee. As the dean of the Connecticut delegation, she eventually served as the highest–ranking woman in the history of that panel.
Nancy Elizabeth Lee was born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 5, 1935, daughter of Noble W. Lee and Gertrude Smith Lee. She attended the Lab School at the University of Chicago, earned a B.A. from Radcliffe College in 1957, and went to the University of London Courtauld Institute from 1957 to 1958, where she studied art history. Nancy Lee married Theodore Johnson, an obstetrician, and they raised three daughters: Lindsey, Althea, and Caroline. They settled in New Britain, Connecticut, in the 1960s. At the urging of the local Republican committee, Nancy Johnson successfully ran for the Connecticut senate in 1976—the first Republican from solidly Democratic New Britain to achieve this feat in more than 30 years. She served in the state senate until 1983.
In 1982, Connecticut Representative Toby Moffet decided to run for the U.S. Senate. Johnson won the Republican nomination for Moffet’s House seat and faced a fellow member of the Connecticut senate, Democrat William Curry, in the general election. In a district that encompassed northwestern Connecticut, including the towns of Litchfield, Bristol, and New Britain, she ran a campaign that reflected the fiscal conservatism of the Ronald W. Reagan administration but was moderately liberal on social issues. Both candidates, for instance, were pro–choice on the abortion issue, and both opposed constitutional amendments to allow school prayer.1 Johnson won by a margin of about 7,000 votes—52 percent to Curry’s 48 percent.2
During her first term in the House of Representatives, Congresswoman Johnson served on the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. In her third term, Johnson joined the Budget Committee. In 1988, Johnson became the first Republican woman ever named to the powerful Ways and Means Committee, relinquishing all of her other committee assignments. Eventually she rose to chair three subcommittees on Ways and Means: Oversight (104th–105th Congresses, 1995–1999), Human Resources (106th Congress, 1999–2001), and Health (107th–108th Congresses, 2001–2005). During the 104th Congress, Johnson served as chair of the House Ethics Committee (officially known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct), one of just a handful of women in congressional history to chair a full committee.
Among her accomplishments serving in those capacities was her successful effort to shape and steer through the House the Taxpayer Bill of Rights II. On the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, Johnson sponsored the legislation creating the State Children’s Health Insurance Program and was a principal author of the bill adding prescription drug coverage, care for chronic illnesses, and other improvements to Medicare. Johnson’s interests ranged from the protection of industries and jobs in her district to federal policy for childcare and public health. She earned a reputation as an effective legislator and an important swing vote for both parties, voting with Republicans on fiscal policy and often crossing the aisle to vote with Democrats on social issues.
Johnson’s legislative work also focused on issues affecting working mothers and women generally. In 1997, she became co–chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. She advocated a program whereby homemakers could contribute to an individual retirement account an amount similar to that contributed by their wage–earning spouse. Johnson repeatedly sought to moderate the GOP’s welfare reform legislation by sponsoring a successful amendment that kept welfare recipients on the Medicaid rolls. She also fought to preserve welfare eligibility for mothers with children younger than 10 years of age, thus exempting them from the Republican–sponsored five–year cut–off limit.3
Over time, Johnson solidified her hold on the seat, with winning percentages ranging from 64 percent in 1984 to 70 percent in 1992. Only once, in 1996, did she face a tough challenger in the general election—when she won by about 1,500 votes, weathering charges by the Democratic candidate that as chair of the Ethics Committee she had softened an investigation into a book deal by Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
In 2002, she was re–elected after one of Connecticut’s House seats was removed due to reapportionment. A large portion of her old district had been merged with a district in the southwestern part of the state, bringing in the towns of Danbury and Waterbury while moving Bristol into an adjacent district. In the race for the newly created district seat against three–term Democratic incumbent James Maloney, Johnson prevailed by a margin of 54 to 43 percent of the vote. Completing her 20th year in Congress, she emerged as the dean of women in the House (a distinction she shared with Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, also elected in 1982) and the dean of her Connecticut congressional delegation. At the start of the 108th Congress she was the fourth–ranking Republican on Ways and Means. Johnson won re–election to a 12th term in 2004 with 60 percent of the vote, making her the longest–serving U.S. Representative in Connecticut history.4
In the 2006 elections, like many moderate Republicans in swing districts, Johnson faced a tough re–election campaign because of public discontent with her party. Her opponent, 33–year–old Connecticut State Senator Chris Murphy, campaigned by linking Johnson to the George W. Bush administration’s unpopular Iraq War policies and the Republican–controlled House which had low job approval ratings. On election night, in the midst of an electoral wave that swept Democrats back into control of both chambers of Congress, Murphy prevailed handily, defeating Johnson by a 12–point margin.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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