During the two decades she represented California’s Central Coast, Congressmember Lois Capps was voted the Nicest Member of the House of Representatives four times by Washingtonian magazine.
Through three presidents, an impeachment, 9/11, the second Iraq War, and democratic majorities and minorities, she was known for her compassion, grace, and efforts to reach across the aisle.
But her new memoir, Keeping Faith in Congress, reveals the work was never as easy for her as she made it look.
“I struggled all my years in office with how to be both authentic and strong,” she writes, “two qualities that people want in their leaders.”
A nurse by trade, she never expected to be a politician. But when her husband, Walter Capps, a beloved and gregarious religious studies professor at UCSB, suffered a massive heart attack and died in her arms only nine months into his first term as congressmember, she found herself on the ballot three months later for the special election to fill his seat.
“I didn’t want the seat to flip. [Democrats] had just lost the majority, and we were close to getting it back,” she told me at the charming upper Eastside home where she and Walter raised their three kids. Capps, now 80, still lives there with daughter Laura Capps, who serves on the Santa Barbara school board, and grandson Oscar, 7, who has been on the House floor with his nana.
In the midst of her grief, Lois Capps launched into campaigning for her husband’s seat in Congress — but advisors warned her to keep her emotions in check.
“We have a fluky thing about loss in this country,” she said. “People see it as a sign of weakness. We’re supposed to stuff it.”
So she did. And she won. And she headed to Washington a widow. “I came in thinking, How am I going to do this?” she said. “I didn’t feel adequate.” Two things got her through it: her staff and her faith.
“My dad was a preacher, so you can’t get much more religious than that,” quipped Capps, a Lutheran who still reads the bible every morning. It never stopped her from supporting women’s reproductive rights, and, in fact, Capps always voted her conscience: no on the Iraq War, yes on the Affordable Care Act and numerous environmental protections.
But her faith would be tested in 2000, when her eldest daughter, Lisa Capps, died of lung cancer at age 35. No — never smoked.
“My work was a gift during my grieving because you can be swallowed up by it,” she said, sitting in the avocado-tree-shaded yard where Lisa and her siblings grew up. “You want to crawl under the covers and not come out, but if you’ve made a commitment, at least the way I was raised, you have to do something with it.”
She formed a grief group with other representatives who had lost children, and continued to travel the world on delegations to Afghanistan, Kenya, Indonesia — flying home to Santa Barbara every possible weekend and zooming back to D.C. on 5 a.m. flights.
“It wears you down,” confessed Capps, who retired in 2016. “I don’t miss the travel, but I’ll tell you — I do miss the hubbub.” (She’s not, however, sorry to be missing the particular strain of madness inhabiting the Oval.)
I asked if she ever considered another romance; she’s a lady with a lot to offer.
“When I was younger, it was too raw,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “As I got older, I was kind of set in my ways …. Now I’m really set in my ways!”
Her ways include a morning walk every day and, now, catching up on two decades of everyday life.
“I have this backlog of deferred maintenance. For years, I just stuffed things in closets” — both literally and figuratively, said Capps. It’s time for her to begin unpacking it all. “And writing the book is a piece of that.”
Lois Capps will read from and sign Keeping Faith in Congress on Monday, September 24, 7-9 p.m., at Trinity Episcopal Church (1500 State St.). The public is invited.
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