SCHNEIDER, Claudine

SCHNEIDER, Claudine
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
1947–

Biography

The first woman elected from Rhode Island to the U.S. House of Representatives, Claudine Schneider also was the first Republican Representative to serve the state in more than 40 years. During her five terms in Congress, Schneider earned a reputation as one of the House’s strongest environmental advocates.1

Claudine Schneider was born Claudine Cmarada in Clairton, Pennsylvania, on March 25, 1947, the eldest of three children. Her father was a tailor.2 She graduated from Pittsburgh’s Winchester-Thurston High School in 1965, before studying at Rosemont College in Pennsylvania and the University of Barcelona in Spain. She received a BA in languages from Vermont’s Windham College in 1969. She later attended the University of Rhode Island’s School for Community Planning in 1975. After graduation, Cmarada moved to Washington, DC, where she worked as executive director of Concern, Inc., a national environmental education organization. Engaged to Dr. Eric Schneider, she moved with him to Narragansett, Rhode Island, in 1970 when he took a position as a research scientist at the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Ocean Management Studies. In 1973 she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a rare form of cancer in the lymph nodes, which she battled for five years. After twelve years of marriage, Claudine and Eric Schneider were divorced in 1985. Despite her continuing battle with cancer, Claudine Schneider became involved in the Rhode Island environmental movement. She founded the Rhode Island Committee on Energy in 1973, and the following year, she became executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation. In 1974 she led a group of concerned community and environmental groups, launching the first successful campaign in the United States to halt the construction of a nuclear power plant near her home in Charlestown, Rhode Island.3

In the mid-1970s, Claudine Schneider aspired to run as a Democrat for one of Rhode Island’s two seats in the U.S. House but found little support among party leaders. Rarely did a candidate win without the support of the statewide machine and, though both parties were well-organized at all levels in Rhode Island politics, the Democratic Party had enjoyed a strong statewide majority since the 1930s.4 A political moderate, Schneider switched party allegiances in 1978, finding more support from the GOP.5 That same year, after her husband declined to seek the GOP gubernatorial nomination, Schneider expressed her own interest. Republican leaders had a different candidate in mind; however, they offered Schneider a chance for a U.S. House seat in a district that included Providence and the state’s southern beaches.6 She ran a competitive race against Democratic incumbent Edward Peter Beard.7 A former house painter, Beard’s blue-collar background appealed to the capital city’s Italian neighborhoods.8 Schneider won 48 percent of the turnout, coming within 9,000 votes of Beard.9 She continued her environmental pursuits and attracted more publicity as a television producer and a public affairs talk show host for a statewide Sunday morning program.10

Schneider challenged Beard again in 1980 when he ran for a fourth term. This time Beard’s reputation for being quarrelsome and ill-informed hurt his campaign.11 Schneider, on the other hand, had learned to speak Italian, broadened her base of support, and ran well ahead of Beard. She captured an upset victory, winning with 55 percent of the vote as the first woman to represent Rhode Island.12 The first Republican to win either of the state’s two House seats since 1938, Schneider was re-elected to the four succeeding Congresses, enjoying increasingly larger margins of victory.13 At 72 percent, her 1986 and 1988 victories were the highest percentage for a GOP candidate in Rhode Island since 1878.14

Claudine Schneider arrived for the 97th Congress (1981–1983) insisting that she was not a liberal Republican, but outside her economic policies, her voting record indicated otherwise.15 Schneider tended to be a fiscal conservative, allying with her fellow Republicans on issues such as balancing the federal budget and curbing inflation.16 “We’ve got to stop the government from spending more money,” she said. “I don’t look to the government to solve our problems.”17 Schneider stopped short of slashing the social programs on which her working-class constituents depended, claiming, “We can help them, but we can do it in a cost-efficient fashion.”18 However, Schneider quickly earned a reputation as a GOP critic of President Ronald Reagan’s conservative social agenda. She opposed the President’s position 75 percent of the time, more than the average for House Democrats. Her liberal district urged her in this direction; during her freshman term, she estimated that her constituent mail ran 19-to-1 against the President.19

Schneider’s committee assignments recognized her environmental expertise. She served on the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries and the Committee on Science and Technology (later renamed Science, Space, and Technology). In the 98th Congress (1983–1985), Schneider was appointed to the Select Committee on Aging—an important appointment, as Rhode Island had the second oldest population in the country.20 Her differences with President Reagan often translated into differences with the Republican Party leadership in Congress, which consequently excluded her from some important committee assignments. For the 101st Congress (1989–1991), she lost a bid to the prestigious Energy and Commerce Committee, the main arena for the discussion of environmental issues.21 Schneider rose to Ranking Member of the Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Natural Resources, Agricultural Research and Environment. She also joined the Women’s Caucus, which she called an important “opportunity for women to focus.” She recalled learning about issues important to women in this “forum for strategizing, and enabling us to be a force for change.”22

Given her background, protecting the environment became the cornerstone of Representative Schneider’s work in Congress. Her first and greatest environmental triumph was her work on a multi-year battle to close the Clinch River nuclear reactor. A private and federally funded project, the Clinch River Nuclear Reactor was scheduled to open near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, before the Jimmy Carter administration halted its construction in 1977. However, a powerful lobby, which included President Reagan and Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Howard Henry Baker Jr. all endorsed the reactor’s continued construction in the early 1980s. As one of Clinch River’s most vocal critics, Schneider called the project “a confederacy of corporate issues.”23 She teamed with other moderate GOP freshmen to fight its continued construction on the grounds that the project’s costs outweighed its benefit. In May 1981, Schneider convinced the fiscally conservative Science Committee to cut $230 million in additional funding. In 1983 she offered legislation which eliminated the remaining federal funding for the Clinch River project. This proved to be the final blow, shutting down the severely underfunded project. Upon the Clinch River reactor’s demise, Schneider claimed, “We won it on the economic argument. This was a total, complete victory.”24

As a former television host, Schneider knew how to attract attention to some of her core issues. In an effort to promote a more peaceful relationship with the Soviet Union, Representatives Schneider and George Edward Brown Jr. of California headed a project, called “CongressBridge,” to exchange live satellite transmissions on television between the Supreme Soviet and Members of Congress.25 When the project launched in 1987, Schneider commented, “For too long we have seen each other only as warmongers. The time is ripe for new ways of thinking. [We are] getting beyond posturing.”26

Her ability to communicate and her reputation for being determined and independent made Schneider a well-respected politician in Rhode Island. In 1984 the state Republican Party considered her as a challenger for Senator Claiborne de Borda Pell’s seat. She waited, however, until 1990 to take on the popular incumbent, boosted by her clear 1986 and 1988 House victories in a district so large that her elections were nearly statewide. The race between Schneider and Pell drew national attention, as Schneider ran close to the Senator in some polls.27 A popular stalwart in Rhode Island politics, Pell mostly relied on his reputation and television spots in his bid for re-election to a sixth term. Schneider, on the other hand, campaigned vigorously, returning to Rhode Island every weekend. She built support at the grass roots and canvassed all corners of her district, campaigning in neglected and underserved communities in Providence. As the contest drew closer, President George H. W. Bush made a stop in Providence to speak on Schneider’s behalf. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq, foreign policy was a popular issue among Rhode Island voters. Pell’s experience on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave him the edge over Schneider, whose foreign policy experience included her televised debates with the Supreme Soviet and attendance at a Conference on Peace and disarmament in April 1985.28 Rhode Islanders also strongly supported the Democratic Party, as one voter commented before heading to the polls, “I’d vote for her; she’s young and she’s got drive. But that might bring the Senate into Republican hands. That might prevent me from voting for her.”29 Schneider failed to unseat the popular incumbent, receiving 38 percent of the vote.30

After leaving Congress in 1991, Schneider remained active in the environmental protection movement. She invested in a Massachusetts-based consulting company, which sold environmentally sound energy systems in Central and South America. Schneider also accepted a teaching position at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Following Democratic presidential candidate William J. (Bill) Clinton’s 1992 victory, she received an appointment to the Competitiveness Policy Council.31 In 1999 Schneider was diagnosed with cancer for a second time. She sought a successful, alternative treatment. Having defeated the disease twice, she settled permanently in Boulder, Colorado.32

Footnotes

1“Schneider: Ex-Rep. Again Ill With Cancer,” 8 April 1999, National Journal: n.p.

2William K. Gale, “Claudine’s Back in Town–Ex–Congresswoman Returning to Give a Speech,” 17 April 2001, Providence Journal Bulletin: 1F.

3Margot Hornblower, “Charging In,” 22 December 1980, Washington Post: A1.

4David R. Mayhew, Placing Parties in American Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986): 24–27.

5Politics in America, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc., 1989): 1349; Colman McCarthy, “Bridging the East–West Gap,” 28 December 1986, Washington Post: A1.

6Politics in America, 1990: 1349.

7Mayhew, Placing Parties in American Politics: 27.

8Politics in America, 1990: 1349.

9Kathy Sawyer, “More Women Seeking Office In '80 Election,” 14 October 1980, Washington Post: A1; A.O. Sulzenberger, Jr., “More Women Than Ever May Win Congress Seats,” 1 September 1980, New York Times: A1.

10“The Honorable Claudine Schneider Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives (20 January 2016): 8. The interview transcript is available online.

11Politics in America, 1990: 1349.

12Luica Mouat, “Women in Politics: Steady Progress,” 6 November 1980, Christian Science Monitor: 8.

13Politics in America, 1990: 1349.

14Politics in America, 1990: 1348; Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives, “Election Statistics, 1920 to Present,”

15Politics in America, 1990: 1347.

16Almanac of American Politics, 1990 (Washington, D.C.: National Journal Inc., 1989): 1090.

17Hornblower, “Charging In.”

18Hornblower, “Charging In.”

19Politics in America, 1990: 1347; Steven V. Roberts, “G.O.P. ‘Gypsy Mothers’ Test Their Wings,” 26 July 1981, New York Times: E4.

20See Catherine Foster, “Rhode Island Senate Race Takes Politeness Prize,” 26 October 1990, Christian Science Monitor: 7.

21Politics in America, 1990: 1347.

22“Schneider Oral History Interview,” Office of the Historian: 28–29.

23Joanne Omang, “House Science Unit Votes to Pull Plug on Nuclear Project,” 8 May 1981, Washington Post: A20.

24Martin Tolchin, “Senate Vote Virtually Kills Clinch River Atom Reactor,” 27 October 1983, New York Times: A24.

25Politics in America, 1990: 1347.

26Barbara Gamerekian, “U.S. and Soviet Legislators Are Planning to Debate on TV,” 12 April 1987, New York Times: 12.

27John Dillin, “GOP Likely to Gain Senate Seats,” 18 April 1990, Christian Science Monitor: 1.

28Judy Mann, “Defense Queens,” 21 June 1985, Washington Post: C3.

29Catherine Foster, “Rhode Island Senate Race Takes Politeness Prize,” 26 October 1990, Christian Science Monitor: 7.

30Ross Sneyd, “Democrats Sweep Rhode Island from Governor’s Mansion on Down,” 7 November 1990, Associated Press.

31James M. O’Neill, “Environmentalist Schneider Finds Bully Pulpit in New Role,” 19 June 1994, Providence Journal Bulletin: 2B.

32“Schneider: Ex–Rep. Again Ill With Cancer"; Gale, “Claudine’s Back in Town.”

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
Videocassettes: 1990, 35 commercials on 4 videocassettes. These commercials were created during Congresswoman Claudine Schneider's campaign for the 1990 U.S. Senate election in Rhode Island, Republican Party.

University of Rhode Island
Special Collections, University Library

Kingston, RI
Papers: ca. 1973-1990, 93.5 linear feet. The papers include official records from Claudine Schneider's five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives from Rhode Island. The papers contain correspondence, legislative files, press releases, news clippings, campaign material, subject files, and material documenting Congresswoman Schneider's opposition to the Charlestown Nuclear Power Plant in Rhode Island, as well as the Clinch River Breeder Reactor Project in Tennessee. The collection also includes audio and video tapes, photographs, and memorabilia. A finding aid for the papers is available in the repository and online.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

"Claudine Schneider" 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 - Merchant Marine and Fisheries
  • House Committee - Science and Technology
  • House Committee - Science, Space and Technology
  • House Committee - Select Committee on Aging
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Related Media

Unsuccessful Committee Bid

The Honorable Claudine Schneider describes her attempt to get on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Honorable Claudine Schneider, U.S. Representative of Rhode Island
Interview recorded January 20, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)

The "Gypsy Moths"

The Honorable Claudine Schneider recalls being noticed by President Reagan for her coalition-building skills.

The Honorable Claudine Schneider, U.S. Representative of Rhode Island
Interview recorded January 20, 2016 Deed of Gift
Transcript (PDF)