Roby's rise: Hard work, independent voting have helped cement young Congresswoman's role in Republican Party, House
Rep. Martha Roby’s first steps on the path leading away from obscurity in Congress came right after she suffered a defeat.
Alabama voters had just given her a second term, and the Montgomery Republican boldly asked her GOP colleagues in Congress to elect her vice chair of their conference. The job involves developing and delivering House Republicans’ political message through the two-year term.
After weeks of campaigning, the secret November 2012 vote was a nail-biter between Roby and Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas. Roby lost, but the moment marked a turning point in her young congressional career. She was gracious to Jenkins, declared there would be other leadership opportunities, and celebrated the relationships she had established with more than 200 other Republican members of the House.
“I looked at it like, I don’t want to sit around and wait my turn,” Roby said. “I want to dive straight in and do all I can for the benefit of Alabama’s Second District, but also my role to help be a part of shaping the future of this country, so I did it.”
Roby’s determined networking seems to be paying off. Just over halfway through her second term, her record shows she’s adept at both politics and policy. She has shepherded a favorite GOP bill to House passage, embraced a controversial investigation of the Obama administration, picked sides in contested GOP primaries, and recently landed a coveted spot on the House Appropriations Committee. She turns 38 this summer, one of 25 members of the House under 40.
“There are people here that are Martha’s age that aren’t working half as hard as she is,” said Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, dean of Alabama’s House delegation, who is retiring after this year.
“She has a keen political instinct,” said former Rep. Jo Bonner of Mobile, now a lobbyist. In an unusual political move, Roby involved herself in the Republican primary to replace Bonner in Alabama’s First District late last year.
Alabama lawmakers normally avoid primary entanglements, but Roby threw her support behind Bradley Byrne a few days before the special primary runoff in November.
Byrne won, and Roby’s involvement helped define her as a politician: She had chosen an establishment, pro-business conservative over one driven more by conflict and ideology, and she had been willing to go public with her preference.
“I believe in governing, and I want folks here (in the House) who want to be part of governing and not be obstructionists,” Roby said. “I want folks who are ready to roll up their sleeves and be a part of solutions rather than drawing hard lines in the sand and voting no every time.”
She urged like-minded colleagues to join the cause, and they showered Byrne’s campaign with nearly $100,000. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky personally paid their respects at a Capitol Hill reception after Byrne was sworn into office.
The timing of Byrne’s victory was significant. Republicans had been blamed for the government shutdown in October, when hard-core tea party lawmakers had pushed GOP leaders into an unwinnable bargaining position. Roby disagreed with the strategy and sided with leadership against the uprising. It was risky. People aligned with the tea party in Roby’s district complained she was cooperating with her party’s “moderate elite.”
Heritage Action, the political wing of the conservative Heritage Foundation found Roby has voted in line with the group’s views only 18 of 32 times this term, the kind of track record that could attract a challenger from the right.
Another conservative group, Club for Growth Action, actively tried to recruit someone to run against Roby. But it didn’t happen. Roby, who defeated a tea party-preferred candidate to first win her seat in 2010, has no primary opponent this June. Democrat Erick Wright of Montgomery is on the general election ballot in November.
So how has Roby managed to stay friendly enough with Republican leadership to get a seat on the Appropriations committee, yet avoid a primary challenge?
For one, her voting record includes nods to each side of the House GOP divide. Roby ranked near the middle when the Cook Political Report scored House Republicans on their votes on five key pieces of bipartisan legislation brought to the floor by GOP leaders in 2013.
One on end were the “dependables” who voted for all five. On the other end were the “rebels” who voted against all five. Roby was among the “skeptics” who voted against three of the five: extra aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, and the deal that ended the government shutdown. She voted for the farm bill and a bipartisan two-year budget agreement reached in December.
“It depends on who you talk to. One day I may be a tea-party darling and the next day I’m a RINO (Republican in Name Only),” Roby said. Roby’s political skills go back to her days on the Montgomery City Council, said Brad Moody, associate professor emeritus of political science at Auburn University Montgomery.
“She’s got mainstream establishment Republican connections, but she’s also very outspoken at her meetings in the county seats and with constituents saying all the tea-party kind of things about problems with the federal government and Obamacare,” Moody said.
Roby is critical of outside groups that score or rank lawmakers based on loyalty to a particular ideology.
“To have these outside groups bullying members into feeling they have to vote a certain way or they won’t be re-elected is a big part of the problem of what’s going on up here,” Roby said. “I reserve the right to disagree with leadership, but we elected them and I want them to lead, and I’m not going to be pushed around by outside Washington groups.”
Roby may have disagreed with the strategy behind last year’s government shutdown, but ultimately she voted against the deal that ended it. That vote required some explaining back home in a district with a strong military presence, where the shutdown was getting painful.
Roby said she was happy to reopen the government, but not with a deal that didn’t include spending cuts.
“I don’t think she has a fear of doing something that might cost her a vote,” Bachus said. “There are lots of people up here, they may vote one way and pray another, they may not say what they believe or tell people what they want to hear. She does none of that.”
Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, said Roby should get credit for supporting the tea-party goals of smaller government and lower taxes.
“Just because you reach out and work with leadership doesn’t mean you can’t work on those issues,” Aderholt said.
The GOP, often criticized as the party of older white males, has tapped Roby to deliver the party’s national weekly message — a response to the president’s weekly radio address — three times in the last three years, plus a fourth time alongside a handful of her colleagues.
Roby also picked up a Republican comp time bill that had languished for years, dusted it off, and pushed it through the House under a heavily promoted theme of helping working, middle-class families.
The bill, to offer hourly workers in the private sector a compensatory time off option, was not as well-received by Democrats as she had hoped, and the final vote was mostly along party lines.
The Democratic majority in the Senate is expected to ignore the proposal out of concern it would make it harder for workers to earn overtime pay.
Other legislative initiatives also shore up Roby’s record as a conservative, such as her attacks against funding for Planned Parenthood and against requirements that states adopt certain federal education standards in order to win federal education grant money.
When Republicans declared the deadly 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a political scandal worthy of multiple congressional investigations, the Armed Services subcommittee she chaired at the time joined in. She said her panel’s inquiry was nonpolitical and focused only on military readiness, but Democrats still labeled the final report a partisan sideshow.
The highlight of Roby’s efforts on behalf of the Second District was her success blocking a Pentagon move to take several C-130 planes away from an Air Force reserve unit stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base.
Alabama’s entire congressional delegation, concerned about lost jobs in the short term and the base’s long-term prospects in an era of Pentagon budget cuts, confronted Air Force leaders about the reorganization. In the end, the 908th Airlift Wing kept its six planes and picked up two more.
Roby’s record is why she landed the coveted spot on the Appropriations Committee in December, said Aderholt, a veteran member of the powerful committee.
“She has demonstrated she wants to make a difference and go the extra mile, so I think Republican leadership — the speaker — has taken note of that,” said Aderholt, who also chairs an Appropriations subcommittee.
“She works hard in the district and here in Congress, and so I think that’s one of the reasons they chose her.” Roby said she focused her first term on organizing a staff capable of handling constituents’ needs and her second term on learning the legislative process and navigating House rules. She still has her eye on leadership.
“Where there are opportunities I think are right and good for our state and country, I’ll take them,” she said.
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