WatchSonoma Watch

Woolsey steps down Thursday after 20 years in Congress


Lynn Woolsey can’t sit still.

Over coffee at her Petaluma home, the retiring Democratic congresswoman fidgets and scolds, cusses a little and raises her arms in exasperation.

She speaks passionately about her opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a position that earned the septuagenarian acclaim as the conscience of the Congress, and derision from the political right as a traitor to the nation.

After 20 years of serving California’s 6th district, Rep. Lynn Woolsey will retire and slow down her life in her Petaluma home. (John Burgess / PD)

She’s sat with Stephen Colbert, sparred with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, been fawned over by former President Bill Clinton and been virtually ignored while speaking on the House floor. She’s been lauded, arrested, mocked and emulated. Through it all, she handily beat every challenger who dared try to dethrone her.

On the verge of retirement — her replacement will be sworn in Thursday — Woolsey, 75, offered an assessment of her career as only she could, dismissing her critics as “full of sh–,” and making no apologies for being “a liberal for 20 years in an organization where people would rather you go along to get along.”

She is, in many ways, the same outspoken everywoman who shocked the North Coast’s political establishment in 1992 by winning what was then the 6th District Congressional seat. She was the longest of long shots, a former welfare mom running against better-known and better-financed opponents. But it was the “Year of the Woman” in California politics, and Woolsey surfed the wave to victory.

In the ensuing two decades, she built one of the most consistently liberal voting records in the House, earning both praise and scorn and raising her profile well beyond Sonoma and Marin counties.

Her greatest legacy is her anti-war activism that included an unprecedented string of speeches on the House floor — often to an empty chamber — in which she denounced conflict and demanded that the troops come home. She delivered her 444th and final such oration Dec. 12.

All that is behind Woolsey as she sits in her kitchen, clutching one of the four cups of coffee she consumes daily. Other than a few magnets with political messages stuck to her refrigerator — “Stop the Party of No!” — there is little to suggest that this is anything but the home of a doting grandmother, albeit one who recently surpassed 3 million airline miles commuting to work and now professes a desire to stay put.

“I wouldn’t mind learning how to relax,” she said.

Boxes filled with the remains of her Capitol life occupied the living room of the 1,900-square-foot Petaluma home Woolsey paid $24,000 for in 1971 and refinanced twice to underwrite her early political campaigns.

More stuff was piled on a child’s play table in Woolsey’s home office, the walls of which were adorned with several photos of the congresswoman with Bill and Hillary Clinton.

A sliding glass door opens onto a large backyard where Woolsey last summer announced her retirement to about 200 supporters, including her close friend and political ally Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, who called Woolsey “a warrior for peace and justice.”

Others have been less kind. In 2011, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin labeled Woolsey the Lindsay Lohan of American politics, writing that the “far-left exhibitionist congresswoman” has “never shown any restraint when it comes to trashing America’s military leaders before the world.”

Although she supported a 2001 joint resolution of Congress that paved the way for President George W. Bush to launch the invasion of Iraq — a vote she came to regret — Woolsey was the first member of Congress to call for the withdrawal of troops from that country.

In 2006, Woolsey earned national headlines after she gave a guest pass to Bush’s State of the Union address to anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan. Three years later, Woolsey was arrested for trespassing outside the Sudanese Embassy in Washington in protest of that country’s genocidal policies in Darfur.

To counter those who say she’s unpatriotic, Woolsey cites her success in getting medical leave benefits extended to military veterans.

“The leaders of their platoons will tell them, and have told them, that there’s no member of Congress who’s more supportive of you … than Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey,” she said.

Woolsey said she grew up bristling against a woman’s perceived role in American society. She said her mother, who died before Woolsey was elected to Congress, would have been proud of her, while also worrying that her daughter would lose her “sex appeal” in the male-dominated institution.

About her childhood in Seattle, Woolsey says vaguely that she has been responsible for herself since she was “4½ years old.” Asked to elaborate, she said she’ll tell it all some day in a book.

Welfare was another defining issue for Woolsey, who collected Aid to Families With Dependent Children, Medi-Cal health benefits and food stamps in Marin County after her first husband left her in 1967. A second marriage took her off the welfare rolls three years later.

Woolsey used that background to her advantage in 1992 when she bested a field of nine — seven of them men — in the primary for the 6th District seat that had been held by Barbara Boxer.

Among those Woolsey defeated was former Sonoma County Supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, who offered his own assessment of her career last week.

“I think she performed as a member of a safe Democratic district would be expected to perform,” he said. “I don’t think she distinguished herself among the membership of Congress in any special way. But not everyone can be a star.”

Woolsey won the primary with only 26 percent of the vote, and in the general election, beat Republican Bill Filante, who was ailing with a brain tumor and unable to campaign.

Critics say Woolsey didn’t earn or deserve the seat. But her story as a former welfare mom who went on to start her own business and serve eight years on the Petaluma City Council resonated.

Woolsey said she was able to stay in Congress as long as she did because she was in sync with her constituents. She also benefited from her incumbency and the fact Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district more than 2 to 1.

Woolsey potentially would have had a harder time getting re-elected in November under California’s new system in which the top two vote-getters square off in the general election regardless of party affiliation. She said the change had no bearing on her decision to not seek another term.

“I could have had the seat for life,” she said.

David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, said Woolsey deserves credit for talking about issues that were unpopular or out of favor, citing as examples her opposition to the wars and her push for equality in the workplace.

“She’s tried to run politics from her heart and much of Washington isn’t about that,” McCuan said. “The question is, what has she been able to turn into actual legislative action? On that score, the record is a little more lean.”

Asked for the legislative achievement she’s most proud of, Woolsey did not offer the types of local bridge, highway or jobs projects that are the campaign fodder for many members of Congress. Instead, she cited a relatively obscure bill signed by Clinton in 2000 that provided $13 million for a pilot school breakfast program in six school districts, including Santa Rosa.

She also takes credit for twice saving the Two Rock Coast Guard base from closure and restoring wetlands at Hamilton Air Field, renaming the Inverness Post Office in honor of a fallen soldier and the transfer of Skaggs Island from the Navy to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Woolsey said her legacy also will include expansion of two marine sanctuaries that effectively puts the Sonoma Coast off-limits to energy development, an announcement that was made Dec. 20.

“What I’ve done for this district is outstanding, but I can’t go around telling people that,” she said.

Former state Assemblyman Jared Huffman, who is replacing Woolsey in Congress in a reconfigured district, said comparing Woolsey’s style to that of somebody else is to miss the strength of her service, “which is providing moral clarity and standing up for some righteous causes, like ending the wars and fighting for social justice.”

He said the thing he finds most remarkable about Woolsey is that she didn’t let the power go to her head.

“She left Congress the same engaging and warm person that she was when she went in. That’s pretty special,” Huffman said.

Any consideration of Woolsey’s legislative record must be weighed against the fact she was a member of the minority party for all but six of her 20 years in Congress.

She was not considered a legislative powerhouse by most political observers, and at times seemed to not appreciate the unintended consequences of her actions.

As an example, Woolsey said she never would have supported Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act had she known it would not be adequately funded.

Likewise, she said she would not have introduced legislation backing federal recognition of the Coast Miwok Indians had she known it would lead to the tribe breaking ground on a controversial casino in Rohnert Park.

Woolsey, who acknowledged that she likes to play the slots, said she “got rolled by our senator” on the tribal issue. She refused to name that person but it was an obvious reference to Boxer, who reportedly removed Woolsey’s language in the bill that would have prohibited the Coast Miwoks from building a casino.

More recently, Woolsey did not take a position on whether the Drakes Bay Oyster Co. in Tomales Bay should be allowed to have its lease extended after she earlier supported Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s bill giving Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar sole discretion to make that decision.

Salazar informed the oyster farm Nov. 29 that he would allow the 40-year lease to expire, effectively shutting the operation down pending legal action filed by the company’s owners.

At her house, Woolsey said she did not know which position to support in the oyster farm debate and she made the case that her opinion didn’t matter anyway because the decision rested with Salazar.

She said he called her before announcing his decision publicly.

“I gasped. I was so surprised. He’s a cattleman!” she said.

Kevin Lunny, who owns the oyster company, said he was “surprised and disappointed” that Woolsey did not advocate on his behalf after the many discussions he said he had with the congresswoman in Washington and in Petaluma.

“We even brought oysters to her home because she loves oysters,” he said.

He said he holds her “partially responsible” for his business being shut down.

“She turned on local, sustainable agriculture and allowed this travesty to happen, when she should have taken a leadership role and represented her constituency,” Lunny said.

David Keller, a former Petaluma City Council member and current member of the Petaluma River Council, called the oyster company’s fate a “tough decision,” and said he could have argued it either way.

He praised Woolsey for her environmental record, saying she “recognized early on that Northern California really stands by its natural resources.”

Other supporters praised Woolsey for setting a good example for women in politics and for remaining true to her core values.

Tiffany Renée, a Petaluma councilwoman whose term expires next week and who ran to replace Woolsey in November, said she was a single mother and a student at Santa Rosa Junior College when she volunteered for Woolsey’s 1992 campaign.

“She showed me there were other possibilities for my life,” Renée said.

Petaluma Mayor David Glass recalled one occasion when he took Woolsey up on her invitation to visit her at her home if ever he needed something. He said he knocked on her door bearing a letter outlining concerns about the city’s flood-control project.

“She opened the door and she was actually in her bathrobe,” Glass recalled. “She looked at me and asked what I needed. I said, ‘I hate to bother you, but this is a matter of urgency to the city.’ I handed her the letter.”

Glass said Woolsey took his concerns to the Army Corps of Engineers and the result was the problem got worked out.

“Without her support of that project, which actually began under Barbara Boxer, we never would have made the progress we did,” he said.

Now when people knock on Woolsey’s door, it likely won’t have anything to do with politics.

Woolsey, who earned $174,000 in her final year in Congress and will collect retirement benefits that include a pension, Social Security and health care, finds herself at peace, if not rest.

“When I was a little kid, my grandfather said he’d pay me a nickel if I sat still,” she said.

“I never collected a nickel.”

33 Responses to “Woolsey steps down Thursday after 20 years in Congress”

  1. Beef King says:

    It is clear that the Progressives have done a better job of organizing Sonoma county to vote their way.
    All things must pass.
    Join New Sonoma and stop the stupidity of voting for Marxist principles and union thuggery that is the result of the automaton ‘democrat’ voters.
    Real Democrats don’t support Progressive Marxism.
    It’s time to take the party back and make it stand for American freedoms once more.
    Lynn Woolsey’s is an opportunity for Huffman to change the direction of the local party.
    Let’s put the heat on Jared.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 3

  2. Reece says:

    Waaaa!!! Waaaa!!! Lynn Woolsey is a Communist, but how dare anyone say “I’m full of sh–!”

    How dare anyone muscle in on my right to be a rude creep by pointing out that I was never correct about her!

    How dare anyone rub my face in it that Lynn Woolsey never lost and actually won by LARGE margins!

    Now I will play victim and accuse others of being bullies! Waaaa!!! Waaaa!!! They’re mean!

    Those lefties are mean. You don’t see us right-wingers calling names! No, never! I don’t want these people to represent me so I’m moving to Utah!

    Waaaa!!! Waaa!!!

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 14

  3. Ca voters so dumb says:

    Good riddance…total embarrassment

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 5

  4. David says:

    The problem is most of the really left wingers see themselves as moderates. At least Woolsey doesn’t deny what she is.

    I read the paper online (I refuse to buy it anymore) for the local news as there isn’t any other news source for Sonoma County.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 7

  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    If all of you rightwingers believe the PD is a left leaning newspaper then WHY DO YOU READ IT? I’m truly mystified, because I think it’s pretty right of center myself and I’m a moderate. Yet, you come on here and blather not seeing that all of us middleclass ARE VICTIMS of the rich’s greed.

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 22

  6. Jean Anderson says:

    Whether you like or hate Woolsey, the fact is that for 20 years she made a lot of money as part of a corrupt organization whose chief accomplishment seems to be stealing money from hard-working people, and then wasting it on stupid projects.

    What a legacy. The fact that her opinions are often ignorant pales in comparison to the grand theft that she and her colleagues engaged in.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 8

  7. Fiscal Conservative says:

    It’s degrading to read the local paper and see the comments that come from the progressive/socialist left.
    If they had an opinion worth contemplating, it is lost with the abusive demeanor in which they comment.
    Personally I do not want to be represented by a member of the United States Congress, Santa Rosa School Board, nor the Local labor Union that publishes uneducated insults such as:
    ‘Full of $h—“
    ‘Small insignificant splotch of screechers’
    ‘Sexist right wing peanut gallery’
    In my opinion, those in this nasty comment group show that they do not have the curriculum vatae, maturity, or the integrity to be real leaders.
    As for Represenitive Woolsey, although we differ in opinions, I thank you for your service to our Nation. I hope you enjoy your retirement as much as we will.

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 10

  8. Kirstin says:

    Hmm, a few more lefties show their ignorance here about the difference between political opposition and “hate.” Learn to distinguish, please.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 10

  9. JD Seamans says:

    No matter what is said, she will continue to play a part in politics. She obviously pitched a better campaign than her opponents when she was up for reelection. What do you expect from politicians who make it their careers? I for one think she was better then Boxer and Pelosi. Those two need to retire and get out of politics. They’re only in it for themselves.
    Get use to it, everyone who goes to Washington is only for themselves and their own “agenda” or their groups “agenda”. Victory goes to the one with the sweetest promises!

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 8

  10. Matthew says:

    Jesus, listen to you people. Is this what you hate-mongers do after you lose, head over to the nearest left-leaning newsite and flood the comments section with your drivel? What a life. Despite your venom, this woman still mananged to get reelected again and again. This is, of course, obvious proof that no one cares what you think, or listens to you, but by all means, bloviate away. If newsite comment sections decided elections, we’d all be finished as a society. As it happens, they don’t. All you do is signify yourselves as mean-spirited, uninformed haters. Congrats to you.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 30

  11. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Happy to have voted for her every time.

    Thumb up 6 Thumb down 33

  12. Bonnie S. Arthur says:

    Thanks, Lynn, for all you did over the many years. Election results show that you were everyone’s favorite and a woman of great accomplishment. Best of luck!

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 34

  13. Elephant says:

    @Jean Anderson – “One less blood-sucking parasite in Congress.”

    Sorry but one was replaced by another. As bad as Woolsey was, Huffman is worse.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 8

  14. Laura Gonzalez says:

    Congratulations and thank you to Congresswoman Woolsey for her service and dedication to the North Bay.

    And to all the haters here who, as Rigo Tovar so aptly pointed out, are but a small insignificant splotch in this area, I find it quite gratifying that Ms. Woolsey is leaving on her own terms.

    These screechers could NEVER find someone to “dethrone” her. lol So in essence, Woolsey is right, they *are* full of sh–. If they weren’t, they’d have found a candidate to beat her!

    Thumb up 8 Thumb down 36

  15. Rigo: The fact that Woolsey won for 20 years is not an endorsement of Woolsey, but an indictment of the delusional electorate in the Woolsey, Pelosi, and Lee districts.

    If you’re curious as to what Jim Judd is doing, I would imagine he is back at his business making an honest living, something none of the aforementioned three fools have done in decades.

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 8

  16. Jean Anderson says:

    One less blood-sucking parasite in Congress.

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 10

  17. Jean Anderson says:

    This woman was a disgrace and embarrassment to all who value liberty and intelligent government in Sonoma County.

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 8

  18. Kirstin says:

    Rigo Tovar makes the all too common “error” of many on that side of the aisle of equating sharp disagreement with someone’s policies with “hate.” Not so. Time to get that through your heads, Rigo, at al.

    And, Rigo Tovar, be not too proud of the fact that Lynn Woolsey found it so easy to be re-elected. This, actually, reflects rather sadly on the voters who (mechanically? or too loyally?) put Xs by her name.

    Ms. Woolsey was the epitome of the big spending politician in her 20 years. She seldom met a spending bill (except in the case of military spending which she often opposed) for which she didn’t vote yes. Thanks to her and those who voted with her, we are now passing a $16 TRILLION debt on to our children. That’s nothing of which to be proud.

    Thumb up 33 Thumb down 8

  19. David says:


    “The posters on this website seem to be predominantly mean spirited.”

    You need to go back and read all of your and Lisa’s posts if you want to see mean spirited!

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 5

  20. Rigo Tovar says:

    All these Lynn haters spewing stupidity and getting many thumbs up, while the positive posts getting thumbs down show just how out of touch this page is with Sonoma County.

    You all can spew all you want, but the TRUTH is you couldn’t get anyone to defeat her, she was elected and re-elected OVER and OVER. None of your candidates even GOT CLOSE. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it.

    The bloviating hides the simple truth. The people of Sonoma County wanted her, liked her and kept her for 20 years.

    BTW, what’s JIM JUDD doing these days? Or any of the others who LOST?

    Yeah, that’s right. Give this a thumb’s down, who cares. I’m right and you can’t stand it.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 46

  21. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    I thank Lynn for her years of service on behalf of the middleclass and the poor, her continued stance on peace, and her hard work for the environment.

    Unlike others who were elected and went on to forget the rest of us, she has remembered her constiuents and has been responsive to our community’s needs. She has always been responsive to me.

    The posters on this website seem to be predominantly mean spirited. They’d cut off their own noses to spite their faces. They are really unclear on who represents them.

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 41

  22. Taxpayer says:

    Please go away.

    Thumb up 40 Thumb down 12

  23. mixed nuts says:

    I give it one month before she starts her lobbying gig with Barbara Lee.

    Old politicians never retire, they just move sideways to a new trough.

    P.S. be careful what you say on this board- it may be used against you.

    Thumb up 51 Thumb down 12

  24. Bill me says:

    Woolsey speaks to “getting along” in one sentence, then dismisses her critics as being full of sh-? She defines all that is messed up with our electeds. Goodby, good riddance.

    Thumb up 58 Thumb down 14

  25. Ray M. says:

    Lynn Woolsey is proof that rich liberals in Marin and south Sonoma County will vote for anyone with a “D” after their name. She did nothing for our counties, no jobs, no infrastructure, except for a casino, or housing. Rich liberals want someone to advance their pet causes. Woolsey did that. Woolsey also advanced the rich Marinite attitude of no growth. Marin County is for the liberal rich and their servants. All others can live somewhere else.

    Thumb up 55 Thumb down 15

  26. sheryl says:

    Welfare Mom to millionaire in a mere 20 yrs of “public service”

    Thumb up 55 Thumb down 11

  27. Lisa Maldonado says:

    Lynn Woolsey is a SHERO & an AMAZING leader who has done more for the North Bay than the rest of her critics could ever do. Her hard work includes making workplaces safer, bringing resources and employment to our district, funding health care and and food and education for kids and building roads etc etc…Of course, like many women Lynn Woolsey works to solve problems not to be “a star”. Perhaps Mr Koenigshafer doesn’t think that health and education and creating jobs is as important as what he does (what does he do anyway?) In any case, I suppose still having sour grapes after losing an election so ling ago is quite the accomplishment.(I think he’s still pissed that she beat the pants off him 20 years ago!) The hatred in the comments of the vicious and sexist right wing peanut gallery who post on the Press Democrat website only prove how effective and Progressive Lynn is and how big to fill her shoes will be….. Sorry boys!This is what a strong and principled leader looks like!

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 71

  28. Several years ago, as was the fashion, Lynn Woolsey held a “Town Hall” meeting. Rather than face the voters of her district, she cowered behind a conference call with hundreds of people listening in. I submitted a question to her call screener, and waited 90 minutes on hold. It was never addressed. As I recall, no critical questions of any sort were addressed. Perhaps it is because her deepest fear was that her opponents are full of common sense.

    Thumb up 53 Thumb down 13

  29. Skippy says:

    Lynn, you have always been
    “full of sh–,”

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

  30. Follower says:

    As much as I deeply, deeply despise Lynn Woolsey & politicians of her ilk for what they have done to our nation & state, the fact is that she did exactly what David Keller sent her to do. Over & over again for 20 years.

    Thumb up 48 Thumb down 15

  31. Kirstin says:

    It would be gratifying to be able to say that Lynn Woolsey’s years in Congress were a boon to us. Unfortunately, they were not. Many of her “progressive” stances only increased the difficulties we face today with Big Government growing ever bigger all the time. She is a proponent of the Nanny State, and as such she was never one I could support for office. Also, she’s just sooo classy about her opponents, isn’t she? What a way to end her career. Hope she will have a good, but quiet, uninvolved retirement.

    Thumb up 70 Thumb down 18

  32. David says:

    “dismissing her critics as “full of sh–,”

    What a classy lady! (sarcasm)

    Your paper wouldn’t print what I think of Lynn!

    Thumb up 63 Thumb down 15

  33. David Keller says:

    I thank Lynn for her consistent, strong advocacy for women’s rights and equality, for peace, for our environment, protection of our Northern California coast, and for the poor. There are precious few Congressmembers who will do that. Congratulations, Lynn!

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 66

Leave a Reply