Leslie Byrne made Virginia history in 1992 by becoming the first woman elected to Congress from the Old Dominion. “I am Virginia’s first Congresswoman, but now my job is not to be a historical footnote,” she told reporters. “My job is to serve.”1 Elected as part of a large, reform–minded freshman class, Byrne sought to protect the northern Virginia families and federal government employees that formed her base constituency. She also proved fiercely loyal to the Democratic Party, proposing punishment for subcommittee chairmen who refused to support President William J. Clinton’s economic initiatives.
Leslie Beck was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on October 27, 1946. Her father, Stephen Beck, was a smelter, and her mother, Shirley, an office manager.2 She attended Mount Vernon College, in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, where she majored in psychology and drama, graduating in 1965. During her sophomore year, she married Larry Byrne, and the couple eventually moved to Falls Church, Virginia, in 1971, where they raised two children, Alexis and Jason.
Leslie Byrne served as chair of the Fairfax County commission on fair campaign practices from 1978 to 1980, and as president of the Fairfax Area League of Women Voters from 1982 to 1983. Byrne was elected to the Virginia house of delegates, where she served from 1986 to 1992. Her greatest legislative triumph in the state legislature was forcing a bill out of committee, against the wishes of party leadership, requiring open container trucks to be covered with protective tarps. She gained a reputation as an outspoken legislator who often showed disdain for opponents by putting on lipstick during floor debate.3 When the legislature adjourned from its brief annual sessions, Byrne worked as president of a human resources consulting firm.
In 1992, Byrne ran for a U.S. House seat in a newly created northern Virginia district centered in Fairfax County. The new district contained primarily suburban, dual–income households and many federal government workers. Byrne went unopposed in the Democratic primary. In the general election, with the help of women’s funding groups, such as EMILY’s List, she ran the best–financed campaign in the country for an open congressional seat, raising approximately $800,000. The campaign was a brutal battle of political opposites. As one voter quipped, “There’s nothing fuzzy about this race.”4 Byrne portrayed her Republican opponent, Henry N. Butler, as an archconservative and, late in the race, questioned his character while downplaying suggestions that she used her gender as a campaign issue. Byrne insisted that her platform was similar to that of Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Clinton.5 Butler responded by painting Byrne as an anti–business, tax–and–spend liberal destined to stymie economic growth. Byrne came under a good deal of criticism for negative TV ads which attacked her opponent. She later admitted that she was walking a fine line; however, she indicated that accusations of wrongdoing were leveled at her because of her gender. “What comes across in men as ‘fighter, outspoken, champion of the people’ comes across in women differently,” Byrne said. “There was the constant tension between getting the facts out and going toe–to–toe with him, and not wanting to be perceived as pushy [or] brassy.”6 Byrne defeated Butler with 50 percent of the vote. He took 45 percent against two other independent candidates. District residents, however, were ideologically split, favoring incumbent President George H.W. Bush over Clinton, 43 percent to 42 percent.7
Byrne was elected to the 103rd Congress (1993–1995) as part of a large, reform–minded, diverse freshman class. A rash of retirements and defeats in the 1992 election also opened more than 200 vacancies on various committees (the most in 44 years), granting ample opportunity for new Members to receive coveted assignments.8 Byrne sought a position on the prestigious Ways and Means Committee. No new women from either party, however, won appointment to that committee. Fellow Virginian and three–term incumbent Lewis Payne gained a seat representing the state’s delegation on that panel.9 Byrne instead received two lower–level assignments: Post Office and Civil Service and Public Works and Transportation. These committees made sense in light of her constituency: 17 percent of her constituents were federal employees, and traffic and transportation problems that burdened the Washington, D.C., area were at the forefront of voters’ concerns.10 Byrne received a nod from the Democratic leadership when she was appointed an At–Large Whip.11
Byrne’s one term in office focused on protecting and increasing benefits to the families and federal employees in her district, particularly concentrating on health care, education, and retirement benefits. She sponsored legislation that expanded childhood immunizations and provided more funding for Head Start education programs, arguing that money spent on young children would head off far more expensive problems in the future. Byrne introduced a bill that would allow penalty–free withdrawals from retirement accounts to purchase homes or to pay for education expenses. She proposed evaluating Social Security benefits providing minimum health care and health insurance for the elderly, as well as adding services to this benefit, such as in–home health care and nutritional counseling.
Byrne gained the most notoriety, however, for being a maverick within her own party. In May 1993, she led the movement to create a petition calling for the removal of House subcommittee chairs who opposed President Clinton’s first budget package. Though she initially was skeptical of the President’s proposed pay freeze for federal employees, knowing the effect it would have on her district, Byrne nonetheless supported President Clinton’s economic initiatives and budget proposal. Byrne indicated that dissenting subcommittee chairs were poor leaders for being unwilling “to step up to the plate” and swallow some of the budget’s unpopular measures, including tax increases, in order to cut the deficit. “There’s a strong feeling among many [Democrats] that those who serve in a leadership position ought to be there when the country needs them,” Byrne said. “This particular issue should not be decided by sticking our finger in the wind. There is no free lunch. We ate it and now we have to pay for it.”12 Gathering more than 80 signatures, she was able to force the Democratic Caucus to consider her effort at party discipline. Speaker Thomas Foley of Washington State convinced Byrne not to bring the proposal to a formal vote by promising to consider it within the Steering and Policy Committee, which determined party strategy. No changes came about, but Byrne claimed that the move had its desired effect.13
In the 1994 election, Byrne faced Republican challenger Thomas M. Davis III, the Fairfax County board chairman. Davis emphasized fiscal restraint and conservative values, while highlighting the need to aid the disadvantaged.14 Byrne went on the offensive, touting her legislative achievements for families and painting Davis as unfriendly to unions.15 In a hotly contested race, Davis defeated the incumbent in a Republican sweep in which the GOP took control over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, collecting 53 percent of the vote to Byrne’s 45 percent.
After leaving the House, Byrne was an unsuccessful candidate for the 1996 Democratic nomination for a Virginia seat in the U.S. Senate. From 2000 to 2003, she served as a Democrat in the Virginia senate. In June 2005, Byrne won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor of Virginia but lost narrowly in the general election in November 2005.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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