Michael Moore's Muse
She's a plain-spoken pol from Toledo who wants to put Wall Street bankers behind bars. Meet Marcy Kaptur, in theaters now as the scourge of greed in Capitalism: A Love Story.
Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur steals the show in Michael Moore’s new movie Capitalism: A Love Story as the sharp-tongued critic of last year’s financial bailout. Sitting in her Washington office, the cheerful 63-year-old representative from Ohio has the manner of a benevolent fairy godmother, but her message is harsh and to the point. “I mean some of them are criminals,” she says of the bankers and financiers who benefited from the TARP program. “I think some of them belong in jail.”
In what she calls her “produce the note” movement, Kaptur urged Americans facing foreclosure to “be squatters in your own homes. Don’t you leave.”
It may be this contrast between Kaptur’s down-home, chipper way of speaking (lots of “gosh” and “dang” and “wow”) and her aggressive, uncompromising condemnation of the “financial coup d’etat” she says was orchestrated in Congress last September that makes her so hard to ignore, although that’s exactly what many of her own party did last year when she was railing against the $700 billion bank bailout bill.
Still, Kaptur doesn’t see herself as radical, and she doesn’t think her colleagues do, either. She was born and raised in Toledo in a Polish-American working-class family. Kaptur’s father owned a family grocery store, but was pushed out of business by big supermarkets and went to work in an automotive plant. In an early introduction to the pitfalls of capitalism, Kaptur remembers riding with him one day in his old Ford truck to go buy meat for the store. For the first time ever, the manager said he wouldn’t sell him prime meat anymore because the supermarkets had bought it all up. He would only sell her father the second-best cut.
“So what happened was the man in the cooler when the door closed said, ‘Kappy’—our dad’s nickname was Kappy—he said, ‘Kappy, I’ll switch carcasses prime to choice, they won’t know the difference,’” Kaptur recalls. “I was too young to understand it, but I thought, my father is a totally honest man, they make him feel like he’s cheating just to run his business.”
• The Best Scenes from Capitalism: A Love Story • Fall’s 25 Hottest Movies Kaptur’s mother worked on the organizing committee of a union at the Champion Spark Plug Company before she married. Rep. Kaptur, the first of her family to go to college, now makes a comfortable salary as a member of Congress, but—much like Moore—says she remains working class at heart. She comes from “people who struggle” she told Progressive Magazine, and fights for small business over big companies, so that no one has to go through what her father did. “That isn’t how America should be,” she says. “America is about individual opportunity.” Kaptur remains unmarried and has no children, saying it would be impossible for her to balance her 500-mile commute and 90-hour workweek with a family. “So my motherhood is of a different order,” she told the Toledo Blade.
Kaptur, now in her 14th term, is the senior-most woman in the House of Representatives; she’s been elected to 12 of those terms with more than 68 percent of the vote. She takes good care of her mostly white, Democratic, manufacturing-dominated district, and has been accused of being too fond of sending pork back home. She was an early opponent of NAFTA, which she said hastened the decline in manufacturing jobs in her area. Joseph Wurzelbacher, John McCain’s “Joe the Plumber,” has threatened to run against her in 2010, but she doesn’t feel vulnerable.
Despite her seniority, Kaptur has never ascended to the leadership ranks in Congress because, supporters say, of her “maverick” unwillingness to toe the party line, exemplified by her opposition to the bailout. Much of her antipathy to TARP was grounded in her experience with the Savings & Loans scandal of the 1980s, when she watched taxpayers shoulder the mistakes of risk-taking lenders. She remembers when someone first explained to her how another savings and loan scandal would be prevented through the “magic” of securitization – which, in fact, set the next crisis in motion. “I thought, these guys don’t know anything about real estate markets,” she says. “Real estate markets go boom and bust, they move with the economy. What happens when we get a bust?”
Kaptur is an economic populist, but she shies away from Moore’s condemnation of capitalism as a whole. “I think, you know, having something saying, ‘crony capitalism’ versus ‘democratic capitalism’— making that distinction a little more vivid—would have crispened it,” she says of Moore’s movie.
Nevertheless, Moore has become one of Kaptur’s biggest fans since interviewing her for his film. “I'm going to have a thing on my website with Marcy Kaptur, and by the way, that Congresswoman from Toledo, Ohio, when Obama's eight years are up can we just make her the first female president in the United States?” he said in the question-and-answer after a screening of his movie. (Kaptur’s thought about the White House before, and she says matter-of-factly that she could do the job but that she couldn’t raise enough money to run. Impressed by her rhetorical skills, Ross Perot asked her to be his running mate in 1996. She turned him down.)
Kaptur became a Youtube celebrity in January for what she calls her “produce the note” movement. Speaking on the House floor, she urged Americans facing foreclosure to “be squatters in your own homes. Don’t you leave,” unless the bank could produce the original loan document (which, in many cases had moved up the line in a bundled of securitized notes). “Possession is nine-tenths of the law,” she says. Kaptur has watched foreclosures skyrocket 94 percent over the past year in her district, seen Ohio homes sold to outside investors for pennies on the dollar, and watched two of her own neighbors lose their homes. Those are the events, she says, that fuel her outrage.
Because Kaptur is appearing in a Michael Moore movie about the evils of capitalism (Bernie Sanders, the only self-described socialist elected to Senate, was one of the few other politicians featured) and often finds common cause with fellow Ohioan Rep. Dennis Kucinich, one could be forgiven for assuming that Kaptur is on the fringes of Congress. But Roll Call columnist Norm Ornstein says her old-fashioned populism makes her difficult to categorize on the political spectrum, and that her colleagues respect and listen to her. “She’s seen as a crusader, not as on the fringe,” he says. Jack Torry, a Washington correspondent for The Columbus Dispatch and former reporter for Kaptur’s hometown paper The Toledo Blade, says that to understand Kaptur you have to first understand Toledo, a blue-collar town that has hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs over the past few decades. “It’s hard to say she’s leftist—she’s a populist,” Torry says. “That’s what she is really. She’s just kind of an old-fashioned populist.”
Though Kaptur and Republicans aligned briefly over their rejection of TARP, Kaptur votes as a rank-and-file Democrat most of the time. She was listed by Nation magazine in its “Most Valuable Progressives” awards as the “Most Valuable House Member” in 2008. But the congresswoman is often at odds with members of her own party over her position against free trade and abortion, among other issues. She has been a vocal critic of House leader Nancy Pelosi, and has lamented the “team” mentality that requires members to constantly beef up Democratic Party coffers.
But Kaptur knows her colleagues respect her, even when she is kicking up a fuss. “I think they see me…the words I’ve seen are: feisty, strong, dogged, determined, indefatigable.” She pauses. “What’s the other word? It’s one of these things like, ‘when she sinks her teeth into it she doesn’t let go.’”
Liz Goodwin is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast. She has written for the New York Sun, GothamSchools, the Tico Times, and Fodor's Travel Guides.