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Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Remembering Jackie Walorski, a Quiet Force in Congress

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Rep. Jackie Walorski’s role at the Capitol was easy to miss if you weren’t looking. The Indiana Republican wasn’t the type that elbowed her way to the front of a photo op or solicited invitations to insider events. When she had an issue with someone or something, she was civil but direct—never one to trade in the Capitol’s most dangerous currency, gossip and innuendo. She was a reliable ally for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who took her counsel seriously because, well, if Jackie is coming in for five minutes, she actually needs to talk.
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As the news spilled out Wednesday that Walorski and two of her aides had been killed in an auto accident in her home state, the immediate response showed that as much as Washington is a place of deep division and dysfunction, Congress is in many ways a family. Feuds and disagreements are just more personal with kin. And the admiration that poured forth for the 58-year-old Republican who spent a decade in the House was as abundant as it was sincere.

Walorski’s background read like an idealized “About Me” page for a Republican candidate, with time spent studying at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University and four years as a missionary in Romania. In the House, she was a good barometer for what Christian conservatives could stomach in compromises and where the red lines were. Put plainly: If you could read Walorski, you could read the broader Republican cohort on the Hill, and McCarthy and his team learned that quickly. (So, too, did Democrats.)


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As such, McCarthy rewarded—or punished, depending on who tells the story—Walorski with the top Republican spot on the Ethics Committee, which handles some of the most sensitive self-policing in Washington. Discretion is that panel’s ultimate skill, and Walorski wielded it with aplomb.

“When there was a vacancy for Republican leader of the Ethics Committee, she was my first call,” McCarthy said in a statement. “Everyone who knew Jackie knows she was tough, but fair—a no-nonsense, straight shooter who knew that Congress must reflect the will of the people with decency and honesty.” (Keep this idea about the will of the people in mind as we get to Jan. 6.)

She was in line to chair that thankless ethics panel if Republicans managed to take back the House this fall. Add to that her position on a powerful tax-writing committee and the top GOP slot on its subcommittee on worker and family support, and Walorski had juice. Because of this, Democrats could work with her because, unlike some of her other colleagues, they believed she was coming from a place of sincere conviction and desire to do right by her constituents back home. When she fought to preserve funding for Christian social service groups, it was because of her faith and not out of a bid to get booked on Tucker Carlson. Democrats could disagree with her position but begrudgingly respected it in a city filled with exploitative characters who too often view outrage as a ticket to power.

And, always just out of earshot, were the whispers that Walorski was destined to move up into a more serious job in Leadership. Her time as a local television reporter gave her a knack for telling stories in a compelling way, and the Republican Party’s messaging right has long needed an upgrade. Also, women remain grossly underrepresented in the GOP’s ranks: just 33 of the 211 Republicans in the House are female, roughly one-third behind Democrats.

Occasionally, Walorski’s ability to read the rank-and-file membership of her party led to some questionable choices. It’s impossible to discuss her time in office without acknowledging her support for The Big Lie, a lawsuit promoting it, and her vote against certifying Joe Biden as the rightful winner of the 2020 election. Walorski knew many of her constituents back home held that belief to be true, even if she may have privately had doubts. “I share the concerns of many Hoosiers about irregularities in how some states conducted the 2020 presidential election,” she said at the time.

Still, even her political opposites shelved those facts for the day and instead focused on her character, which was forged in South Bend, Ind., where her dad ran an appliance store and fought fires and her mom manned the meat counter at the grocery store. After college, Walorski moved home to report on her community as a journalist before shifting into non-profit and fundraising for academia and, eventually, to Christian missionary work in Romania. Most importantly, she never lost sight of treating her fellow humans with respect, even when she thought they were unrepentantly wrong. “She passionately brought the voices of her north Indiana constituents to the Congress, and she was admired by colleagues on both sides of the aisle for her personal kindness,” Pelosi said.

“As partisan as Congress has become, it is still a family, and this loss hits close to home,” said added Rep. Ted Deutch, a Florida Democrat who worked closely with Walorski as the Ethics Committee’s chairman. “Jackie Walorski was a colleague and a friend. She cared deeply about the House and about her constituents, and she will be dearly missed by all of us.”

From the White House, Biden offered his own condolences: “We may have represented different parties and disagreed on many issues, but she was respected by members of both parties for her work on the House Ways and Means Committee on which she served.” Biden’s team had been working with Walorski on next month’s conference on hunger, with Walorski serving as co-chair of the House Hunger Caucus. (Yes, even food insecurity has a lobby that demands a congressional confab.)

While much of Washington is preparing to empty for the August recess and the House is already gone, the loss was still keenly felt—especially among staff on the Hill who were remembering two of their own who also died in the crash. Every aide on Capitol Hill has been—or aspires to be—in a car with the boss. It’s facetime that’s a tough commodity to snag when lawmakers are hustling between votes, meetings, and fundraisers. Some of Congress’ top aides convinced their member they were a cut above during a long drive with interminably bad radio choices. That Walorski’s communications director and district director were killed in the crash sincerely shook many aides, even those who had never worked with 28-year-old Emma Thomson and 27-year-old Zachery Potts.

It was a reminder of the risks that come with the constant churn of work travel. That the icy roads of Iowa and the treacherous mountains of New Hampshire don’t bring more crashes and losses is somehow overlooked, especially when thousands of new-to-politics optimists are working in unfamiliar terrain on little sleep. (The same conditions, it should be noted, plague journalists trying to keep pace with White House hopefuls.) Thomson and Potts were similarly committed to their work in the House office.

So, too, was Walorski’s commitment to service, even if it could be divisive. She could read the polls and this week’s results in deep-red Kansas as well as anyone. But she also knew her conscience. In that, her legacy is in very, very safe territory in a city otherwise occupied by craven opportunists.

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