08.03.09

Freshman Terror

As Blue Dogs fret about health care, Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky can relate. The woman who cast the deciding vote on Clinton’s 1993 budget talks about holding all of Washington in your hands.

It has become clear that the fate of a health-care overhaul, the first major piece of legislation in the Obama administration, rests on the votes of a handful of nervous freshmen Democrats. And there’s perhaps no person in the world that understands their plight better than Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, who achieved 15 seconds of fame in 1993 when she cast a brave vote for Bill Clinton’s first budget—and then watched her political career go up in flames.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Margolies-Mezvinsky recalled the climactic showdown over Clinton’s budget, which raised taxes and drew the ire of the constituents in her Pennsylvania district. “When I went to town-hall meetings, I had to be escorted by the police,” she said. “There were kids holding signs saying 'LIAR.' ... I just painted a target on my chest.”

Like many of today’s Blue Dogs, Margolies-Mezvinsky was a freshman who had won a surprise victory in a conservative district during a strong Democratic year. But Clinton's budget put her party loyalty to the test.

As Margolies-Mezvinsky cast the decisive vote, a Republican legislator jumped up and down and chanted, “Goodbye, Marjorie!”

She took the floor the day of the vote with the intention of voting against it. But as the ayes and nays came in and Democrats defected again and again to the Republican side, it soon become clear that her vote would be nothing less than crucial to its passage. President Clinton personally called her on the telephone to ask for her vote and convinced her to get on board.

As she walked to cast her vote, she received jeers from Republicans. None stuck with her as much as Rep. Robert Walker (R-PA), who she recalled jumping up and down and chanting, “Goodbye, Marjorie!”

“I tell you, it was just an incredible experience to watch this guy jumping up and down. But three things: One, he was right; two, he was a jerk; and three, he is a very good jumper,” she said. “I was just surprised at the level of divisiveness and immaturity... and I think it's the same thing with health care.”

Margolies-Mezvinsky believes she would have won reelection if not for her budget decision, but the vote handed her opponent a cudgel to wield in the campaign. On Election Night 1994, she was finished after a single term. But despite never returning to politics, she has stayed active in the policy world. In 1998, she founded Women's Campaign International, an organization that helps encourage female participation in politics around the world. In addition to her nonprofit work, she also teaches classes on political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

It's a lot to handle for a woman with a combined family of 11 kids. A modern-day Brady Bunch only more so, Margolies-Mezvinsky, who had already adopted two children, married former congressman Ed Mezvinsky, who had four girls from a previous marriage—they then had two boys together and raised another three children as legal guardians. Mezvinsky later served time in prison from 2003 to 2008 for bank, mail, and wire fraud, leaving her to take care of the children on her own before his release last year.

While she regrets being forced into the position of holding the Clinton agenda in her hands, Margolies-Mezvinsky said she still stood behind her decision. Had the budget not passed, she said, Clinton's presidency would likely have been crippled and his status as a lame duck all but guaranteed.

It's a fate that some have suggested could happen to Obama. Indeed, one Republican, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) even referred to the health-care bill as his “Waterloo” and said it would “break him” if it failed to pass.

According to Margolies-Mezvinsky, Obama's overhaul plan will be a crucial test, but still does not compare to the do-or-die situation Clinton faced.

“I think many people understand that what he inherited—and he hasn't been there long—was a huge, huge problem,” she said. Even though this is terribly important, I think for Clinton, the budget was enormous. It was the overarching piece that would help him figure out all the other pieces.”

Nonetheless, she encouraged the current crop of wavering Dems to consider the impact of their votes beyond their district.

“I think there is a real difference, as Pericles and Machiavelli said, between leading and being led,” she said. “I think if you get down there and all you want to do is keep your seat, you're being led, you're not leading.”

Laughing, she added:

“Mind you, I was not a good politician. I didn't last very long.”

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.