RIVERS, Lynn Nancy

RIVERS, Lynn Nancy
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives


Lynn Nancy Rivers entered politics as a “mom who got mad at the system.”1 As one of a handful of Democratic freshmen elected during the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Rivers championed the interests of her Michigan district, as well as lobbying regulations in Congress.

Lynn Rivers was born in Au Gres, Michigan, on December 19, 1956. Her father was a mailman, and her mother was a small business owner. The day after she graduated from Au Gres-Sims High School in 1975, she married Joe Rivers, who soon found work as a member of the United Autoworkers Union. The couple had two daughters: Brigitte and Jeanne; the Rivers later divorced. While working a series of low-paying jobs, Lynn Rivers put herself through college, graduating with a BA from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1987. In 1992 she earned her JD from Wayne State University in Detroit. While attending law school, Rivers served as a trustee of the Ann Arbor board of education, where she served from 1984 to 1992. In 1993 she was elected and served one term as a member of the Michigan state house of representatives.

When Michigan Congressman William David Ford, a Democrat, retired after the 103rd Congress (1993–1995), Lynn Rivers breezed through the Democratic primary in her bid to succeed the 15-term veteran and former chairman of the Post Office and Civil Service Committee and the Education and Labor Committee in the Ann Arbor-centered district. In the general election she faced Republican John Schall, whose Harvard education and long service in the Ronald Reagan administration contrasted with Rivers’s humble background.2 Rivers ran on a platform identifying with Ann Arbor working-class voters as a former teenage mother with an autoworker husband. “We went without health insurance when jobs didn’t provide it. We were in the job market with not very salable skills. We had to get our education as adults and struggle through that,” she noted, adding, “I think my experience has provided me with some real life understanding of the problems that are facing people.”3 Schall tried to paint Rivers as “a classic ultra-liberal,” while emphasizing his more moderate political stance and goal to build business and high-tech jobs in the district.4 In the late stages of the campaign, Rivers disclosed that she had been living with bipolar disorder for 20 years. Though most politicians avoided discussing their own mental health, Rivers, who was on medication to control the disorder, accepted the risk. “It’s very easy for Members of Congress to be advocates for mental-health treatment,” she later admitted. “It’s hard for Members of Congress to admit being consumers of mental-health treatment.”5 Voters were unfazed. Despite a Republican sweep across the nation as well as GOP gains in traditionally Democratic Michigan, Rivers defeated Schall with 52 percent of the vote.6 Congresswoman Rivers was re-elected to three succeeding Congresses, garnering between 57 and 64 percent of the vote.7

Rivers served as a freshman House Member in the 104th Congress (1995–1997), the first Congress in 40 years with a Republican majority. The change in party control was reflected in the fact that Rivers was one of just 13 Democrats in a new class of 73 Members. Her Democratic colleagues elected her as president of their class. Rivers quickly won the respect of her colleagues and displayed her tough but empathetic legislative style. On policies regarding women’s reproductive health, for instance, Rivers made it clear that the right to have an abortion was a personal issue with her. “I look back at the difficulties we went through,” she recalled of her years as a young mother. “I could never force that on somebody else.”8 In a 1995 debate on whether federal employees should have abortion coverage in their health plans, opponent Representative Henry John Hyde of Illinois asked her to yield the floor. “I yield the gentleman the amount of time the gentleman yielded to me, which I think was about eight seconds,” she said.9 Despite the tense debate, Hyde later observed, “She is smart and un-intimidated. [The debate] was spirited, but not mean-spirited.”10

A member of the Science Committee for her entire career, Congresswoman Rivers also made her mark as a committed environmentalist. Among her more innovative pieces of legislation was a bill which required certain beverage bottles to carry a refund value of 10 cents. It further allowed states to cash in unclaimed refunds in order to fund pollution prevention and recycling programs.11

Rivers used her first term to highlight her adamant stance against accepting perks, gifts, and contributions from lobbyists. Rivers reasoned that “there’s a familiarity that comes with a gift that makes people uncomfortable, a relationship between the lobbyist and the Member that Mr. and Mrs. Smith from the district would not have.”12 She suggested a “no-check zone” on the House Floor, preventing lobbyists from handing campaign checks to Members, as part of a Democratic campaign reform package in 1996.13 She also came out against automatic pay raises for Members of Congress. Rivers sent her own pay raise back to the Treasury Department in April 1997. She also returned $600,000 from her office budget saved over her first three terms.14 Rivers alluded to Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” when discussing the controversial issue of campaign finance reform. No matter how hard the opposition fights it, “the heart of reform will keep on beating.”15

Rivers was appointed to a prestigious position on the Budget Committee in her first term. She served on the committee’s bipartisan Social Security Task Force in the 106th Congress (1999–2001) but soon concluded that the parties differed too widely to come to a consensus, charging that many of her colleagues on the task force were present merely to score points with voters.16 She gave up the Budget Committee in the 107th Congress (2001–2003) in order to take a position on the Education and Workforce panel; the committee’s jurisdiction covered two of Rivers’s areas of personal interest. Citing her own experience of putting herself through school, she opposed a measure calling for interest on student loans to accrue at matriculation instead of at graduation. She chastised the bill’s supporters, who had benefited from student loan assistance. “What hypocrisy,” she declared, “I guess it is easy to pull up the ladder of success once you and your children are safely at the top.”17 Rivers also was a passionate protector of labor. Many of her constituents were autoworkers.18 Rivers led several other Members from manufacturing districts in demanding investigations of the effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which opened domestic manufacturing trade restrictions between the United States and its North American neighbors. Rivers also fought a GOP proposal to allow companies to compensate employees who work overtime with extra time off rather than with extra pay. She cited employer pressure and discrimination against those who would choose pay over time off.

Well-respected in her party, Lynn Rivers was considered among the closest advisers to Minority Leader Richard Andrew Gephardt of Missouri by the time she was elected to the 107th Congress.19 Her favor with the leadership was not enough to carry her through a tough 2002 campaign, however, which pitted her against the dean of the House, Congressman John David Dingell Jr., when Michigan lost a congressional seat after the 2000 Census. Rivers declined to run in a newly reapportioned district, and instead chose to wage a Democratic primary battle against the 23-term incumbent, whose family had held a Michigan seat in Congress since 1933. Rivers began a fierce campaign, claiming that her opponent was too unfamiliar with the needs of her Ann Arbor constituents.20 “Clout is a lovely thing, if you are using it for good,” Representative Rivers said.21 She emphasized her humble roots and her frugal lifestyle, also noting that she could be counted on to represent her traditionally Democratic district with a solid liberal voting record. Dingell’s favorable record on women’s rights, including health care, equal pay, and other equity issues, appealed to women’s groups and partly deprived Rivers of the support of one of her most powerful constituencies.22 Michigan women and congressional colleagues were torn between the two candidates.23 Dingell defeated Rivers with 59 percent of the vote. Afterwards Congresswoman Rivers returned to her Ann Arbor home. “I’m just going to have to wait and see what life serves up to me,” she told supporters. “I’ve said repeatedly that you cannot have lived a life like mine without having an innate optimism and a belief that there are always second chances.”24


1Politics in America, 2002 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 2001): 524.

2David McHugh, “Candidates Offer a Clear Choice; She Persevered Against Adversity,” 7 October 1994, Detroit Free Press: 1B.

3McHugh, “Candidates Offer a Clear Choice; She Persevered Against Adversity.”

4McHugh, “Candidates Offer a Clear Choice; She Persevered Against Adversity.”

5Frank Rich, “The Last Taboo,” 23 December 1997, New York Times: A19.

6“8 Days Out, Roll Call’s Guide to Races,” 31 October 1994, Roll Call.

7Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present.”

8McHugh, “Candidates Offer a Clear Choice; She Persevered Against Adversity.”

9Congressional Record, House, 105th Cong., 1st sess. (19 July 1955): 7194.

10Doug Obey, “Rep. Rivers Runs Against GOP Tide,” 26 July 1995, The Hill: n.p.

11The measure, H.R. 845, was introduced early in the 107th Congress but never cleared the Science Committee. Congressional Record, House, 107th Cong., 1st sess. (1 March 2001): 623.

12Craig Karmin, “Chief Sponsor of Lobbying Gift Ban Legislation Defends Contribution Request to Lobbyists,” 29 March 1995, The Hill: n.p.

13Katherine Rizzo, “Democrats Turn Quiet When Asked About Handing Out Checks in the Capitol,” 23 May 1996, Associated Press.

14Politics in America, 2002: 525.

15David E. Rosenbaum, “Capital Sketchbook; A Day of Debate and Forced Allusion,” 15 September 1999, New York Times: A22.

16Politics in America, 2002: 524.

17Politics in America, 2002: 524.

18McHugh, “Candidates Offer a Clear Choice; She Persevered Against Adversity.”

19Ethan Wallison, “Frustration Fuels Pelosi’s Whip Bid; Women Aired Concerns During Gephardt Meeting,” 14 October 1999, Roll Call.

20Katharine Q. Seelye, “Dean of the House is Forced to Face Ex-Ally in Primary,” 9 July 2002, New York Times: 16.

21Seelye, “Dean of the House Is Forced to Face Ex-Ally in Primary.”

22Deb Price, “Dingell, Rivers Vie for Women,” 7 April 2002, The Detroit News: 13A.

23Price, “Dingell, Rivers Vie for Women.”

24Lauren W. Whittington, “Rivers Blames Auto Industry for Primary Defeat,” 12 August 2002, Roll Call: 10.

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

University of Oklahoma
The Julian P. Kanter Political Commercial Archive, Department of Communication

Norman, OK
Videocassette: 1994, 1 commercial on 1 videocassette. The commercial was used during Lynn Rivers's campaign for the 1994 U.S. congressional election in District 13 of Michigan, Democratic Party.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Lynn Nancy Rivers" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U. S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Budget
  • House Committee - Education and the Workforce
  • House Committee - Science
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