Culture of Life
Congress the Poorer Without Pro-life Voice
BY William Murray
January 19-25, 1997 Issue | Posted 1/19/97 at 1:00 PM
THIS CATHOLIC congresswoman, who's spoken out longer and more forcefully than any other for the pro-life position, is leaving the House of Representatives.
For 14 years, Barbara Vucanovich (R-Nev.), the first woman elected to federal office in her state, represented the second district, which covers all of Nevada except for downtown Las Vegas. Next month, Jim Gibbons, a Republican, who won her seat in November, takes office. He beat Vucanovich's daughter, Patty Cafferata, in the September primary.
Despite her retirement and the recent defeat of Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.), another leading pro-life legislator, Vucanovich is optimistic about the prospects for the cause on Capitol Hill. Pro-life leaders Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) “are not going away,” she says, adding that there are now “more pro-life members than before,” in Congress.
Nonetheless, the retiring congresswoman expresses dismay at the fact that nearly 60 percent of Catholic voters supported Clinton in last month's election. “I'm amazed that Catholics can support any politician who can support partialbirth abortion” or is “pro-choice,” she says. “Most of the Catholics I've known are compassionate and caring and have aligned themselves with working people.”
While in office, Vucanovich spoke out on the abortion issue, both in her state and on the House floor. She recalls serving in Congress with Democratic and Republican women who voted pro-life, but who never addressed the issue publicly. The 1994 elections brought several pro-life Republican women to Congress including Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.) and Rep. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) who have been more like Vucanovich in not being afraid to talk about the issue.
Vucanovich said she's proud of her accomplishments on Capitol Hill, “not so much for passing legislation as for preventing bills” from being made law. During all but two years of her time in Congress, Republicans were the minority party, so she had to “play defense.”
In 1995, after “six or seven” years of work, a Source Tax repeal she sponsored passed Congress. The measure bars states from collecting tax from pensioners who move to other states. She also prevented the government from dumping nuclear waste at the Yucca Mountain in Nevada in 1995.
She opposed reform of the 1872 mining law, which she predicted would “devastate Western mining and destroy Nevada jobs.” She also opposed a Clinton-sponsored tax on gambling and worked to influence federal water policy through forming the Western Water Caucus in 1995.
Despite being a pro-life Catholic, Vucanovich doesn't have any qualms about living in and promoting a state that is home to so-called “Sin City,” and where regulated prostitution is legal in some parts.
Speaking about gambling, she said “it's a business in our state” and “there are downsides to legal as well as the illegal variety.” Legalized gambling in Nevada has brought an increase in crime, she acknowledges, but added that her “biggest concern is Indian gaming,” on reservations where Native American tribes don't pay any tax on their revenue and do not report to an overseer. “It took us 100 years to establish a gaming board and commission,” in Nevada, and it “made sure that licensees are honest.” While the Mafia is widely credited with building up Las Vegas, organized crime families are said to operate more on the fringes of the city these days, with the casinos and hotels owned by publicly-traded companies.
The retiring congresswoman says she believes House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has gotten a bum rap in the media. “He's not the inflexible, arrogant man the press portrays him as,” she says. “For years, he's tried to get moderates and conservatives to work together. He's a very capable guy in getting provincially-minded people to work together.”
During her last term in Congress, she was part of the Republican leadership, and Gingrich named her to chair “Corrections Day,” a process that allows Congress to rescind laws and regulations that don't work well by using a simplified legislative process that only requires 60 percent of the House to pass.
Despite being a pro-life Catholic, Vucanovich doesn't have any qualms about living in ‘Sin City.’
Vucanovich, 75, lives in Reno, Nev., and has five children, 15 grandchildren and three great grandchildren. In 1949, she left New York for Nevada to start life anew after a marriage of nine years failed. The state was just experiencing an economic boom after legalizing gambling in 1931, which was done in part to get over the Great Depression. Today, gaming and tourism are the state's principal industries, with gold mining and ranching following next.
Even though she came from a strongly Democratic family, she began volunteering for Republican candidates the year after arriving in Nevada. In 1964, she ran Paul Laxault's race for the Senate, but he lost by 84 votes. That same year, her second husband died, and she was left with five children. Despite that setback, she became a franchise owner in 1964 for the Evelyn Wood Speed Reading Co. and continued in that business for four years.
“My biggest problem was getting credit,” she told the Register during a recent phone interview from her Washington office. “I even had to say to one of my bankers, ‘if you don't give me credit, I'll take you to court.’ No one had an idea that you could go out on your own,” and launch a business, especially as a widowed mother of five.
In 1965, she married George Vucanovich, her husband of more than three decades. Three years later she launched her own travel agency, which she ran for six years before selling it to pursue a career in politics. In 1974, Sen. Paul Laxault named her his district representative for the northern part of the state. She held that post until 1982, when she won her seat in Congress.
A year later she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite surgery and recovery, Vucanovich never missed a vote on Capitol Hill. She worked to expand Medicare and Medicaid coverage for breast cancer that covers annual mammograms and for prostate cancer.
Vucanovich says her health is “excellent,” and that she decided to retire from Congress to work for the state as a private citizen.
William Murray is based in Kensington, Md.
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