By Heather Stringer
U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-Calif.), BSN, MA, RN, has represented the central coast of California since 1998. In July, she received the 2015 President’s Award from the American Nurses Association for her work as a champion for nurses. Capps, who recently announced her plans to retire from Congress, talked to Nurse.com about her experience in office.
Q: What do you feel was your biggest accomplishment as a member of Congress?
A: The legislation that I am really proud of is the Affordable Care Act, and that was a very strenuous time here in Washington. We didn’t just snap our fingers and make it happen. It took a lot of hard work, and we drew from the expertise of people throughout the country. We had all-night hearings, and I was on one of the major health subcommittees responsible for writing the bill. We went through each paragraph, all in a bipartisan way, so there was a lot of compromise. It came down to a very close vote, and it’s incredible to see the legislation making a difference to those who are now eligible for medical services. Medicare just celebrated a 50-year anniversary, and I think the Affordable Care Act is similar in scope.
Q: What was your biggest challenge during your career in Congress?
A: I think the biggest challenge I faced was establishing my credibility as a politician when I started. My husband had been a Democrat representing our district in the House, but he died suddenly in 1997. It was hard to find someone to finish out the term, and a few people urged me to consider doing it, so I decided to run. It was a tough campaign because this had never been part of my grand design, and I had to convince people that I could represent their interests in Congress. When I thought about running a campaign, I realized that people really trust nurses and they are usually much more respected than politicians. I also knew that people cared a lot about health and their kids’ education. I had been a school nurse for many years, and I used this background to establish trust and show that I could relate and talk about important issues like health and education.
Q: Was being a nurse helpful to you in your work representing California as a legislator?
A: California has been one of the first states to really embrace the Affordable Care Act, and we’ve had to educate people about how to use the new system. My nursing background has been invaluable because we’ve done a lot of work to teach people how to take advantage of preventative healthcare services. People who used to go to the emergency room or primary care doctor when they were sick are learning to get check-ups and early screenings. Energy and the environment are also big issues in my district, and my nursing background has helped me lobby for the fact that the environment is a public health issue. For example, increased pollution is impacting public health as evidenced by increasing cases of asthma.
Q: What does receiving the ANA’s 2015 President’s Award mean to you?
A: I was very surprised to get the award and it was such a big honor, particularly because it came from my peers. It means a lot to me to have that confirmation that we are on the same page, and I consider the nurses in the ANA as real colleagues in public service.
Q: Was there ever a patient, colleague or situation that made such an impact on you that he, she or it influenced your goals while in Congress?
A: Before I was elected, I worked a great deal with teen parents, both during pregnancy and as new parents. The usual pattern is for a young woman to drop out of school, and we worked hard to reverse that trend and keep them in school. I implemented a program in my community and ran it for a decade. I became close to those young moms, and many had specific goals they were able to fulfill. One teen mom was the first in her family to graduate from high school. That experience motivated me to advocate for things on behalf of women and families, and I have done that at the local level and the federal level.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for nurses who are interested in a career in politics?
A: When you are not a part of this place, people often think it is an amazing thing to get to Washington D.C., but you really just have to want to do it and work hard. Stay active in campus politics while you are a student, and once you graduate stay active in the community. Find opportunities to be on a commission or project that involves winning people over because this will give you practice with reaching out. I think nurses work hard, so it will come as second nature for them to roll up their sleeves and get involved in the community and work on committees. It is an incredible experience to form partnerships with your constituents and lobby for changes that improve their quality of life. Seeing things get accomplished that improve the community is perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.
Heather Stringer is a freelance writer.
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