With congressional approval ratings at all-time lows, people naturally ask, "Is there anybody any good down there?" The answer is: plenty. One who comes quickly to mind is Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, whose dragon-shaped district weaves from Fairport, along Niagara County's shorelines and into downtown Buffalo.
Members who have served as long as 13 terms begin to ride it out. With Democrat Slaughter, it is the opposite. A no-apologies progressive, she has become more tenacious as the terms roll by.
She has worked within and, when needed, outside a broken system to become among the most creative legislators in Washington.
A decade ago, Albany Republicans jammed Slaughter into a brand-new district. Yet she lost no time leading the charge to save the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station from an order by a federal commission to close it, and provide dollars for the civilian airport at that once-doomed site.
Women's issues -- health and reproductive rights -- have been part of the core of Slaughter's mission. For more than a decade, she has crusaded against the Defense Department's penchant for looking the other way when women in the military are raped or sexually assaulted.
"Imagine being a victim of rape while serving overseas and having to salute your rapist each and every day," Slaughter said. "That's what some members of our armed forces have experienced."
This year, Slaughter organized 46 of her colleagues to press for reforms in the Defense Authorization bill. Awaiting passage, the bill requires a sexual assault advocate in every brigade-level unit, upgraded education and training and codes fully informing victims of their legal and financial rights.
After campaigning for 13 years, mostly alone, Slaughter saw her -- this is a mouthful -- Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act signed into law by President George W. Bush. The late Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., the Senate sponsor, called the law the "first civil rights act of the 21st century."
This far-sighted code anticipated emerging human gene studies that can now predict a person's likelihood of getting cancer or Alzheimer's disease. The law prevents health insurers from canceling, denying, refusing to renew or altering terms based solely on a genetic predisposition toward a specific disease. It also stops employers from using genetic information to lay off workers.
Ever since reading a 2006 New York Times story saying 80 percent of our combat troops who died from upper body wounds wore defective body armor, Slaughter has been dogging the Pentagon for accountability on this front. She has made the Defense Department cough up an acknowledgement that $2.5 billion worth of vests worn by our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan were suspect.
After a 2009 audit that she forced, the Army recalled 16,000 sets of armor that failed tests. In a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Slaughter wrote she is troubled by signs of "continuing negligence" by the Army in its armor procurement practices, and in essence told Panetta to shape up.
Like any politician, Slaughter wants to be liked. But that didn't stop her from opposing President Bill Clinton's free-trade deals with Mexico and China, or President Obama's new ones. And she doesn't cower before ultra-right-wing radio the way most of her colleagues do. Slaughter continues to make headlines in her campaign to restrict overuse of antibiotics and on national political fronts.
But in 2012 she might see the toughest political challenges of her life. Albany may again gerrymander her and throw her into a new district against Democratic incumbents Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, or Kathleen Hochul, D-Amherst. In the general election, Slaughter could face the popular Republican Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks.