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iThink Twice-i HR's Most Unlikely Politician

Todd Raphael writes about Lynn Woolsey, welfare mom-turned-Congresswoman, and her unique people skills.

November 28, 2002
Related Topics: The HR Profession
Sonoma and Marin Counties of California have seen it all. They’ve been hometo the Miwok, Pomo, and Wappo Indian tribes. European explorers arrived there.So did Russian fur traders and gold rushers.

California was declared a republic there, independent of Mexico. There’s aworld-famous wine industry there, high-tech research, and an entertainmentcompany founded by Star Wars’ George Lucas.

This district is also home to Lynn Woolsey, the only welfare mother to servein the U.S. House of Representatives. Much of what she believes in, I do not.Still, next month she celebrates the 10th anniversary of her first election bybeing sworn in once again, and there is no better time to tell the story of thispolitician you may not have heard of.

In 1966, Woolsey was a single mother on welfare. Her odds of someday joiningCongress were as slim as those of America landing on the moon.

She got a job as an HR manager for a high-tech manufacturer called DigitalTelephone Systems, in Novato, California. That year--1969--Neil Armstrongwalked on the moon and Woolsey’s company had 13 employees. The subscriptionshe bought to Personnel Journal, now called Workforce, set her back $9 in 1970(Web site not included). By the time she left Digital, she was heading up an HRdepartment that served 800 employees. She also raised four kids.

In 1980, armed with a bachelor’s degree in HR, she started WoolseyPersonnel Service, and for a dozen years acted as the HR department for numerousCalifornia companies.

She served on the Petaluma City Council and then, in 1992, made the jump tothe U.S. Congress, representing one of the wealthier districts in America. Shedid not arrive with Washington experience, just workforce-management experience."HR made all the difference in the world to me as a new member of the House,"she says. "We started out running because I knew how to hire."

Woolsey is super liberal. She wants every state to have a paid-leave programlike California’s. She believes that time spent educating yourself shouldcount as work hours under the welfare laws, allowing you to continue receivingassistance while getting an AA degree. Woolsey favors national ergonomic rules.

Some businesspeople are appalled that the government should tell them what topay their employees, especially when this ends up putting people out of work.Woolsey wants a minimum-wage increase.

Woolsey has watched Republicans on her committee--which covers workforceissues--bring in HR pros as witnesses during hearings. She doesn’t like whatshe sees. "The HR witnesses sometimes forget they work for the employees oftheir companies. Forgetting that is a huge mistake. I never forgot that as an HRmanager."

The business lobbyists in Washington don’t care much for Woolsey. She’sopposed to most of what they favor. They find that her policies run counter tothe idea that business, not government, is the better problem-solver.

Woolsey’s life story, however, defines the American dream. What’s more,Woolsey represents a liberal district. Even among some businesspeople there, she’svery popular. "The kinds of businesses that are doing business here tend toembrace much of her politics," says Brian Sobel, a California politicalanalyst and a Republican.

What separates Woolsey from many other politicians is not that she ran asuccessful business and had to meet a payroll. It’s not that she has been onwelfare. It’s that she has experienced both.

What separates Woolsey from many other politicians is not that she ran asuccessful business and had to meet a payroll. It’s not that she has been onwelfare. It’s that she has experienced both.

John Kramer is a professor of political science at Sonoma State. He says, "Woolseyis a liberal, no question about it." Still, he adds, Woolsey does her homeworkand takes her job seriously. When she held a hearing recently on breaking theglass ceiling in Telcom Valley--the area’s telecommunications sector--businesspeoplewith clout turned out.

When Michael Troy started an HR software business called KnowledgePoint inthis district, it was Lynn Woolsey he called for advice.

Sobel says it is fair to say that Woolsey doesn’t come across as aneloquent genius during debates on the House floor. But she is immensely popularat home. What she lacks in pizzazz she makes up for in interpersonal skills.Every third person who sees her hugs her, and she wins by 2-to-1 margins. AmyWalter, who analyzes politics for the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C.,says Woolsey has her seat until she opts for a new career.

A lot has changed over the years on the beautiful land over the Golden GateBridge. Lynn Woolsey will not. "If Lynn says she will do something, I can takeit to the bank and cash it," Sobel, the Republican, says. "You cannot tradefor that in politics."

Workforce, December 2002, pp. 88 -- Subscribe Now!

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