WASHINGTON – On the House floor, they called her "the gentle lady from New York," but Rep. Louise M. Slaughter wasn't always the sweet Southern charmer you saw on television.
Relentless? Yes. Visionary? For sure. Hilarious? Memorably so. Unafraid to get in the face of any lawmaker or any reporter who, in her view, did her wrong? Absolutely.
She had her gentle moments, but moreover, she was just what her top aide said she was: "a force of nature."
And then she went and shocked the daylights out of me by dying last Friday.
Weeks earlier, I got a morbid but quite ordinary request from my editor: It was time for us to update the list of advance obituaries that news organizations routinely keep on hand for major community figures who are aging. It never even crossed my mind to include this 88-year-old woman who maneuvered the halls of the Capitol gingerly supported by two young aides.
Louise Slaughter was so relentlessly alive that it didn't occur to me that this very old woman could die anytime soon.
If you ever talked to her, you would think the same thing. My last long interview with Slaughter last summer was a stream-of-consciousness tour of the Fairport Democrat's vision on everything from government ethics to bioethics to Donald Trump – and what she planned to do about them all.
Afterward, I told her spokesman it was just like every other interview I had ever had with her over the course of nearly three decades. It was like trying to use a net to catch a beautiful but elusive butterfly.
You might think that someone with some a wide-ranging mind would struggle in Congress, but she wasn't the sort to flit from press release to press release. When she wanted something, she dug in – and found a way to get what she wanted.
Proof of that came in 2011, when she and her staff worked with CBS and "60 Minutes" to show how easy it was for members of Congress to profit in the stock market based on what they knew as lawmakers. That was a rather unconventional way to move a stalled piece of legislation: Slaughter's Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act. But it worked.
The Tuesday after the "60 Minutes" piece ran, lawmakers lined up on the House floor to see Slaughter and tell her that they would sign onto her legislation, recalled then-Rep. Kathy Hochul, now New York's lieutenant governor.
"It was just fascinating to see her sitting there, smiling," Hochul said. "And the secret to it all was that she went on the offensive."
The STOCK Act became law in 2012, six years after Slaughter introduced it and four years after her other great triumph: a law banning discrimination based on one's genetic code.
Slaughter worked that one for 13 years, all because as a microbiologist by training, she had a vision that most lawmakers lacked. She knew that medical innovation depended on barring insurers from picking and choosing among the genetically lucky and unlucky.
"She just came from this moral core that set her on fire," said Sharon Terry, president of the Genetic Alliance, who remembers Slaughter explaining the issue's complexities to members of Congress and highlighting people who had already suffered the discrimination she warned about. "She worked herself to the bone to get this bill passed."
Often, though, Slaughter was by no means so serious. A scientist-turned-politician who moonlighted for a time as a jazz singer, she could have been a comic.
One time, in the middle of a press conference, she noticed that a reporter that she knew well was pregnant. "Oh honey!" Slaughter proclaimed. "I didn't know you were nesting!"
Witness, too, what happened when reporters asked her, in 2011, about reports that her Southern Tier colleague, Rep. Eric Massa, had engaged in "tickling parties" with his young male staffers.
"Why, whatever for?" Slaughter deadpanned in her lilting Kentucky accent.
She was as tough as she was funny. Certain she was right on local issues as well as national ones, she clashed from time to time with her Western New York colleagues. And several times over many years, she lashed into me with a fury that I never saw from any other member of Congress, all because I wrote something that displeased her.
And yet she called me when my mother died.
You see, Louise Slaughter was, in fact, all fire. She could burn you, or keep you warm.
That made her both respected and loved by many on both sides of the aisle.
For years, Rep. Pete Sessions, the hard-bitten Texas Republican who chairs the House Rules Committee, served as her best frenemy.
Sessions and Slaughter fought like cats and dogs about the terms of debate that the Rules Committee shaped on bills headed to the House floor. They stood on the far opposite ends of the abortion debate. And just two years ago, Sessions said one of Slaughter's points of pride – the Office of Congressional Ethics created under the STOCK Act – busied itself with political witch hunts.
Yet Sessions will be there in Rochester for her funeral on Friday, as will Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelosi and hundreds of others.
As Sessions sat at the head of the Rules Committee earlier this week, with a vase of white roses taking Slaughter's place next to him, he told of the laughs they shared and the work they did together and the delicious rhubarb pie Slaughter made.
And through it all, Sessions fought off tears.
"Louise made history," he said. "She believed that anything was possible – and that she could fight for it."
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