Representative Susan Molinari crafted a meteoric political career as a moderate Republican who could reach out to an increasingly important voter demographic: young, suburban, middle–class mothers. Hailing from a Republican political dynasty that had played a role in Staten Island politics for nearly 50 years, she succeeded her father—Guy Molinari—in the U.S. House of Representatives. When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, they quickly elevated the charismatic Molinari to prominent positions, giving her a place in GOP policy deliberations.
Susan Molinari was born on March 27, 1958, in the Bronx, New York, the only child of Guy and Marguerite Wing Molinari. The son of a politically involved family, Guy Molinari served in the New York state assembly from 1974 to 1980 and later spent 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Staten Island, New York. In 1976, Susan Molinari graduated from St. Joseph Hill Academy in Staten Island. Four years later, she graduated with a B.A. from New York State University at Albany and, in 1982, she earned a M.A. in political communications at SUNY Albany. From 1981 to 1983, Molinari worked as a finance assistant for the Republican Governor's Association. She also worked two years as an ethnic community liaison for the Republican National Committee in Washington. In 1985, she won election to the city council of New York, defeating her Democratic opponent by fewer than 200 votes.1 As the only Republican on the 36–member council, Molinari served as minority leader and was entitled to sit on all committees. Popular among constituents, she won re–election with 75 percent of the vote.2 In 1988, Susan Molinari married John Lucchesi of Staten Island; the couple divorced in 1992, with no children.3
In 1990, Representative Guy Molinari resigned his U.S. House seat to become the Staten Island borough president.4 His district, which encompassed all of Staten Island and a portion of Brooklyn, had a nearly 2–to–1 Democratic edge in voter enrollment but was nevertheless known as New York City's most conservative enclave. Susan Molinari declared her candidacy for the March 20 special election, running on her four years' experience on the city council and the strength of her family name. She received a boost from her father's well–established political machine and a fundraising visit by President George H.W. Bush. Molinari's platform included a mix of anti–crime programs, promises to reduce taxes, reasonable defense spending, support for reproductive rights, and pro–environmental positions.5 On the eve of the special election, the New York Times endorsed Molinari over Democratic candidate Robert J. Gigante because she "promises to add a moderate Republican voice to the city's Democrat–dominated congressional delegation."6 Molinari defeated Gigante with a 24 percent margin. In her subsequent three re–election campaigns in her newly reapportioned (but largely intact) district, she won with comfortable majorities between 50 and 69 percent. In each contest Molinari topped her main Democratic challengers by 15 percentage points or more, as a sizeable number of voters went to the polls for third–party candidates.7
When Susan Molinari was sworn into Congress on March 27, 1990, she received assignments on the Small Business and Public Works and Transportation (later, Transportation and Infrastructure) committees. In the 102nd Congress (1991–1993), she took a seat on the Education and Labor Committee and left Small Business. When the Republicans took control of the House in the 104th Congress (1995–1997), Molinari traded in her Education and Labor seat for a place on the Budget Committee.
From her post on Education and Labor, Molinari sought to strengthen laws to prevent sexual abuse and domestic violence. She also introduced several initiatives to encourage businesses to diversify their work forces and bring more women into the management ranks. In 1993, she voted for the Family Leave Act, which required companies to grant employees a minimum of six weeks of unpaid leave for care of a newborn or a sick family member. She also used her committee assignments to tend to district business. Molinari used her Public Works and Transportation seat to impose stricter regulations on Staten Island's Fresh Kills landfill, which had a bad environmental track record. In 1990, Molinari also managed to keep federal funds flowing for the construction of the Stapleton Homeport, a U.S. Navy facility located on Staten Island. Aside from her committee work, in 1992 and 1993, Molinari traveled to Croatia, one of several states which emerged after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Many Staten Island constituents had family ties to the Balkans, and Representative Molinari took a keen interest in urging the U.S. government to recognize the republic—a move that would facilitate expansion of aid efforts.
In August 1993, Molinari became engaged to Congressman Bill Paxon, a rising star in the GOP who represented a suburban Buffalo, New York, district. Paxon dropped to his knees on the House Floor and proposed. "I said, ‘Yes—but get up,'" Molinari recalled.8 Molinari and Paxon married July 3, 1994.9 The next few years were heady ones for the young Washington power couple. By 1993, Molinari was the darling of the Republican Party—a smart, articulate, spokeswoman in a party with a dearth of female faces. She considered a run for New York governor in 1994, but passed on it, citing her desire to cultivate an as–normal–as–possible married life.10 In 1996, Paxon and Molinari had a daughter, Susan, born on May 10. Representative Molinari became one of just four women to give birth while serving in Congress. Another daughter, Katherine Mary, was born several years later.
In the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), her third term on the job, Molinari observed that conditions had improved for Congresswomen. "For the first time there's not that resentment against women Members.… There's a growing attitude among the men that they want to do what is best," she told the New York Times. But, she added, "Congress is still being run by the same people. Women have hit a glass ceiling here."11 She began working toward a post in the Republican leadership, noting that, "I spend a lot of time trying to promote the Republican Party.… And, frankly, there has been an awful lot of discussion there should be a woman in the leadership and I don't disagree."12
In the late fall of 1994, Molinari won the vice chairmanship of the Republican Conference, making her the fifth–ranking Republican in the House and one of the highest–ranking women ever in the GOP leadership. In the summer of 1996, party leaders chose Molinari to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention in San Diego, which nominated Senator Robert Dole of Kansas as its presidential candidate. She fit the profile that GOP leaders were seeking to appeal to: the young, middle–class, suburban mothers whom incumbent President William J. Clinton had lured away in droves in the 1992 campaign. Observers believed that by choosing Molinari, Dole was extending an olive branch to party moderates and pro–choice advocates alienated by House conservatives. Molinari took center stage at the GOP convention, while controversial congressional Republican leaders were given less prominent roles.
Congresswoman Molinari's rise into the Republican leadership, however, made her position as a moderate more precarious. By 1994, the New York Times, which had endorsed Molinari in 1990, was critical of her environmental record and her pro–business orientation, describing her as "reflexively conservative" on most major issues save abortion.13 "Conservatives don't really look at her as one of them," said Representative John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican. "The moderates don't really look at her as one of them. My point here is that she is not trying to walk this fine line. She has created this path based on her own personality and style."14 Former allies were angered by her support for a ban on late–term abortion as well as for her efforts campaigning on behalf of pro–life candidates in the 1994 elections. Labor groups, smarting from GOP efforts to cut Medicaid, vowed to turn her out of office. Molinari suggested she had a pragmatic approach. "If you want to call me a moderate, I'm fine. I enjoy positive Conservative Party ratings, too. If you want to call me a feminist, that's good, too," she said. "I don't get bogged down with what that label is going to be on any particular day, because it does change."15
In late May 1997, Molinari announced her retirement, effective that August, to pursue her lifelong passion as a television personality and focus on raising her family. House Republicans and other colleagues were stunned by that decision, one which Molinari insisted she had been considering for more than a year.16 Less than two months later, Bill Paxon fell out of favor with Speaker Newt Gingrich. He resigned his post as one of Gingrich's top lieutenants in July 1997 and did not seek re–election a year later.17 Susan Molinari's career in television as cohost of the "CBS News Saturday Morning" program was short–lived. After nine months, she left to teach as a visiting Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in the fall of 1998. In 1998, she wrote Representative Mom: Balancing Budgets, Bill, and Baby in the U.S. Congress, a memoir of her career on Capitol Hill. She continued to do television political commentary and opened a Washington–based consulting firm. Molinari also chaired the Century Council, a nonprofit which aimed to curb underage drinking and drunk driving. Molinari and her family reside in Alexandria, Virginia.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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