For more than two decades Congresswoman Marge Roukema forged a reputation as a Republican moderate in the U.S. House, focusing on family issues and welfare reform. Personal tragedy helped prompt Roukema toward a career in politics and factored into one of her great legislative successes.
Margaret Scafati was born in Newark, New Jersey, on September 19, 1929. She was named for her mother, and her father, Claude, was a first–generation Italian American who worked as an auto mechanic. Margaret Scafati earned a B.A. degree in history and political science from Montclair State College in 1951 and subsequently pursued graduate studies there. In 1975 she also did graduate work in city and regional planning at Rutgers University. She worked as a high school teacher in American history and government before marrying Richard W. Roukema, a psychiatrist. The couple raised three children: Greg, Todd, and Meg. Marge Roukema’s first public service position was on the board of education in Ridgewood, New Jersey, where she served from 1970 to 1973. Her political activity was, in part, spurred by her 17–year–old son, Todd, and his battle with leukemia. Roukema put her plans to attend law school at Rutgers University aside to tend to her dying son who succumbed to the disease in October 1976. Roukema later recalled that in the aftermath she was searching for an emotional and intellectual outlet.1 She became active in local party politics as the first woman elected president of the Ridgewood Republican Club in 1977 and 1978. In 1977, she also supported moderate Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Kean, at first as a volunteer but quickly rising to become his campaign coordinator in 30 towns. That experience led her to launch her own campaign for federal office.2 In 1978, she mounted a challenge against incumbent Democrat Andrew Maguire for a U.S. House seat in northern New Jersey that encompassed Bergen County and included the towns of Paramus and Hackensack. But Roukema lost by a margin of about 9,000 votes, 53 percent to 47 percent.3
In 1980, Roukema again challenged Maguire, whom she described as a liberal “out of touch” with his constituency. Roukema, this time aided by the strong Republican turnout for Ronald Reagan, won the seat by a margin of 9,000 votes. In 1982 the district lines were redrawn, and it stretched west to include Sussex County, and Roukema was able to claim an even larger margin of victory: a plurality of 50,000 votes against Democrat Fritz Cammerzell. Indeed, in 11 re–election campaigns, she was never seriously challenged during the general elections, claiming between 65 and 71 percent of the vote. In her final two Republican primaries in 1998 and 2000, however, she faced stiff challenges from the conservative elements of her party who claimed that she was too liberal on a range of issues. Against a conservative state assemblyman in the 2000 primary, Roukema won by less than 2,000 votes, though she again dominated the general election with 71 percent of the vote.4
When she entered Congress in 1981, Roukema received assignments on the Committee on Education and Labor (later renamed Education and Workforce) and the Committee on Banking, Finance, and Urban Affairs (later renamed Financial Services). She sat on both committees for the duration of her career in the House, eventually rising to chair Financial Services’s two subcommittees: Housing and Community Opportunity, and Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit. In addition, Roukema worked on the Education Reform and the Employer–Employee Relations subcommittees of Education and Workforce. In the 98th Congress (1983–1985) she joined the newly formed Select Committee on Hunger as its Ranking Republican Member; she served there for a decade until the committee was disbanded in 1995.
Roukema’s committee assignments led her into legislative work on behalf of job training in the private sector, child support, welfare reform, and family leave policy. Her biggest legislative achievement was the enactment of the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, a bill that Roukema and Democrat Patricia Schroeder of Colorado worked on for years. It required large companies to extend unpaid leave time to new parents, disabled workers, and those caring for chronically ill relatives. Roukema secured the key compromise which helped pass the bill, an exemption for small businesses. Her experience caring for her son shaped her perspective on the issue. “When my son Todd was stricken with leukemia and needed home care, I was free to remain at home and give him the loving care he needed,” Roukema told colleagues in a floor speech. “But what of the millions of mothers who work for the thousands of companies that do not have family leave policies?”5 Roukema later recalled that “the tragedy with Todd was what made me so determined about the Family and Medical Leave Act.”6 She also tended to cross party lines to vote with Democrats on social issues, supporting abortion rights and gun control, for instance. In 1994, she was one of just 11 Republicans to vote to bring a Democratic anti–crime bill to the House Floor and to vote with Democrats to ban assault weapons.7
As Roukema’s seniority rose in the GOP, so did her criticisms of the party’s conservative turn during the 1980s and 1990s. During the controversy stirred by the investigation of the fundraising practices of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Roukema suggested that an interim Speaker be named until the House Ethics Committee finished its probe. When the House levied a $300,000 fine against Gingrich for breaking ethics rules, Roukema insisted that he pay it from personal rather than campaign funds.8 In May 1997 she bristled on the House Floor about Republican efforts to cut $38 million in funding for a major nutrition program for children and pregnant women. “We are not going to take food out of the mouths of little babies!” she declared. “Don’t we ever learn?” In an interview at the time she warned, “Our party will either become a true majority party, or a regional party” in the South. “And the way you maintain a majority,” she concluded, “is to find consensus within your party.”9
By the 107th Congress (2001–2003), Roukema was the Ranking Republican on the Financial Services Committee, but the Republican leadership skipped over her in picking the new chair. “The fact that I was a woman had something to do with it,” she told the New York Times. Her outspokenness and the fact that she did not raise prodigious amounts of money to steer to the campaigns of fellow House Republicans also contributed to the decision, she added. “I was an Independent voter in Congress, and I voted my conscience and my state,” Roukema recalled several years later. “That brought me down in [leadership’s] estimation. I was not elected to do what leadership [said]. I was elected to do what my intelligence, my conscience, and my constituents needed… . That was my reason for being in Congress.”10 She was offered a position as U.S. Treasurer in the George W. Bush administration in 2001 but turned down the offer to serve as chair of the Financial Services’ Housing and Community Opportunity Subcommittee.
In November 2001, Roukema announced that she would not seek re–election to a 12th term. At the time of her retirement in January 2003, Roukema was the dean of her state delegation and the dean of the women Members. She returned to New Jersey where she served on the boards of several nonprofits dedicated to children’s issues and lectured about politics at several universities.11 Marge Roukema, who suffered from Alzheimer's Disease, died at the age of 85, on November 12, 2014, in Wyckoff, New Jersey.
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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