Freshman Congresswoman Susan Brooks sits down with Current to talk about her new position
By Christian Sorrell and Julie Osborne
On Nov. 6, 2012, residents of Zionsville went to the polls and voted for a new congressional representative. Susan Brooks, a Republican and Carmel resident, won the seat, receiving more than twice as many votes as her competitor, Scott Reske, and is now a member of the 113th United States Congress which convened on Jan. 3.
Recently, Brooks sat down with Current at her now-empty campaign office to talk about the move to Washington, school safety, and being a woman in Congress.
Current: You hear stories about different members of Congress sleeping in their offices, commuting from home to work every day, or simply getting a residence in Washington D.C. How are you planning to handle having to be at two places at once, both within the district and in Washington?
Brooks: I am going to be a commuter Congresswoman meaning I will fly out on Mondays and in all likelihood come home on either a Thursday depending on how late votes go or on Friday and try to be home on most weekends. My husband is not planning on moving with me to D.C. so I will be like other people who commute for their work. However, I am not planning on staying in my congressional office like some members do. I am planning on renting a small studio apartment not too far from Capitol Hill. In fact, next week I am loading up the U-Haul and my husband and my son are driving me out there. It’s a little bit like going off to college which we just took our son off to college.
My kids are 19 and 22 so we don’t have any children living at home so I don’t have anybody but my husband at home. It does feel like I’m taking a child off to college but it’s me. I’ve been trying to assemble what I need for that apartment and I’m actually, my daughter just graduated from college, and I’m taking a lot of her stuff. I’m actually borrowing her bed. I’m going to stand up a very small living space because I’m not actually going to be there a huge amount of time. I’m going to be working all day, morning to night. Because my daughter is now living in Philadelphia which is only about a two hour train commute, I’d like to have a nice place where she could come and stay. If family or friends want to come, there will be a blow up mattress for them.
Some men and women have commuted for their job for long periods of time and I am going to be joining their ranks. I’m going to get very accustomed to airports. I think it will definitely be a huge change in our lives but I think it will be manageable.
Current: I imagine having older children makes the entire process a much smoother transition.
Brooks: It absolutely does. It makes for a very smooth transition and I’m actually kind of happy that I’m going to be fairly close to my daughter in Philadelphia.
A couple of nights ago, I went through my house and shopped in my own house. I was pulling things off and putting them in one place so I can figure out which dishes I need, what towels I need, what wastebaskets I need, you know. I need to buy some things. You know, who has more than one iron? So I’m realizing I need an iron and an ironing board, a broom and a vacuum cleaner… a coffee pot! I’m also not going to have a car out there. I’m going to go all transit and walking. I love to walk. That’s my primary mode of exercising. I’m a morning walker. My morning walk will either be a workout or walking to work and I should be ten minutes from two metro stops.
Current: You recently announced a number of your committee placements: the Education and the Workforce Committee, the House Committee on Homeland Security and the House Committee on Ethics. I imagine you had specific committees in mind during the campaign. What are you hoping to accomplish in the committees you are a part of and are there other committees you are looking to become a part of in the future?
Brooks: Actually, the two committees that I did get on were both committees that I preference and asked for. Because of my background at Ivy Tech Community College over the last 5 years, Education and Workforce was absolutely one of my top committees. Due to my time as a U.S. Attorney and the focus I had on homeland security after September 11th for those six years, Homeland Security was another committee that I had requested to be a part of. My only other committee request was for a committee that no freshmen were placed on: Energy and Commerce. It is a committee that I have tremendous interest in, and I expressed that interest but was not placed on that committee. That’s something I hope to learn more about and make another run at some day, but for now, Education and the Workforce and focusing on workforce training, the unemployed, underemployed and higher education are all issues that I want to keep a focus on.
In respect to homeland security, I said throughout my campaign, if we don’t keep this country safe and we don’t know how to respond to disasters, that is what I believe is government’s top job. That is what the private sector can’t do that the federal government must do that well. That’s why I am pleased to be representing the 5th district on Homeland Security.
Ethics, interestingly enough, is something you are asked to serve on, you don’t request it. I was asked by the Speaker’s Office to be on Ethics and that ties in nicely with the fact that, on the campaign trail I talked a lot about restoring confidence in Congress. A lot of people shared with me that they felt that members of congress are tainting congress as a body due to ethics violations so we issued a paper called “Restoring Confidence in Congress” and put forth some ways that I believe that can be done so now my membership on the Ethics committee will help me work on those issues. In any institution, you sometimes have what people call “bad apples,” people who, whether they committed a crime or commit an ethics violation, taint the industry or taint the institution or taint the sector and we need to punish those people and make sure the body as a whole enjoys a better level of confidence by the American people than they do.
Current: With these placements, are there any specific issues that you are hoping to address?
Brooks: In education and workforce, because I’ve been very involved in the workforce training side of education, I was senior vice president of workforce and economic development at Ivy Tech Community College and served on a state board called the State Workforce Innovation, I think there are some significant improvements that can be made in the manner in which those federal unemployment dollars reach the people who need training. There are a lot of challenges in that system, and I think we need to increase the amount of each dollar that actually gets to worker training. But also, we have a challenge in our system when we provide people up to 99 weeks of unemployment without requiring them to get training. I believe there needs to be a requirement that people have to go get training, have to improve their skills or have to get involved in higher education or short-term training and work on certification or certificates to try and give them more skills rather than just sitting on 99 weeks of unemployment and going out and applying for jobs all the time. I think we need to up our game in this country in the level of skilled workforce we have because we are competing with countries that have just as skilled workers as we have. If people do have the level of skills that the workforce demands, I still think if they get 99 weeks of unemployment, they should be doing some community service work. They shouldn’t just be sitting out… and applying for jobs, I recognize people do. I believe they need to be doing more than that. That’s one big thing I want to work on.
Current: With your experience and now appointment to the Education and Workforce Committee what do you think is the best way to protect our children in schools?
Brooks: As a parent of two children who attended local public schools, I fully understand the renewed emphasis on classroom safety in communities across the 5th District and the United States. Nothing is more important than protecting our kids.
During my prior service as general counsel for Ivy Tech Community College, I led a statewide safety and security review of every campus under our umbrella. I learned that every situation is unique, and there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution that will address every problem a school may face. We need to give local school corporations the flexibility and support necessary to organize and implement comprehensive security and safety strategies that meet the needs of their individual student populations.
I also think it’s important to have a serious discussion about all problems that contribute to these awful tragedies. Too often, there’s a rush to immediately blame someone or something. Often, gun owners and the businesses lawfully allowing citizens to exercise their 2nd amendment rights are unfairly vilified by the discussion that ensues. One issue that gets too little attention, yet clearly plays a key role in these events, is mental health. It’s time to have a serious discussion about providing families the support they need to help children and adults facing mental health challenges.
Current: Is there anything that residents within the 5th district can expect to see come back to the district or change on a local level that you will be trying to work on in Washington?
Brooks: We worked hard during the campaign to develop very good relationships with the mayors in most of the communities throughout the 5th district and with local legislators and state legislators. I don’t think it’s my job to tell them what I am going to do for them. I believe they, and the citizens of the 5th, need to be telling me what they would like me to be a strong advocate for. Because I am going to be commuting and returning here on a very regular basis, I hope to have a very open channel of communication with the people in the 5th as to what type of initiatives they want me to focus on in D.C. I’m always going to keep a focus on jobs, what brings jobs to the 5th and keeps jobs in the 5th, because if people have work, there is far less dependence on government assistance. It is still a challenge. We have some parts in the 5th district where there is over 10% unemployment, 1 in 10 adults who are not working.
Current: One hot topic in Zionsville is the proposed Walmart on Michigan Road just north of 106th Street. Do you believe Walmart will be good for the Town of Zionsville? Why? Why not?
Brooks: I’ve always believed local development issues are local decisions. Congress shouldn’t legislate or mediate these types of community discussions.
From a more general standpoint, I think it’s important all stakeholders come together to reach a solution that is mutually beneficial for all parties involved. It’s important to listen to everyone’s perspective, and make an informed choice rather than a quick rush to judgment.
Current: You are the first Republican woman to be sent to U.S. House of Representatives since 1959 with the previous woman being Cecil Harden who served from 1949 to 1959.
Brooks: Yes, that’s right… sadly.
Current: Do you think that fact puts you in a unique position, at a disadvantage or do you not feel that it matters all that much?
Brooks: No, it does. It does matter because Indiana is actually sending two women to the 113th Congress, myself and Jackie Walorski. We are two of only three women coming to Congress in the 113th Congress, only three women out of over 30 which I think is very unfortunate for Congress as a body. I believe we have about 18% women within the 435 members of the body. That’s from both sides of the aisle.
I do believe that women are underrepresented in Congress considering that we are 50% of the voters, more than 50% of consumers that purchase products and make buying decisions in households. We need a much stronger voice in Congress. I do plan on getting involved in the Women’s Caucus which is a bipartisan of Democrat and Republican women. I want to be involved in encouraging and promoting women to consider running for offices at all levels whether it’s at the school board level to the federal level. I don’t think that Cecil Harden would have imagined that it would be 53 years until another Republican woman represented Indiana.
Current: With two of the three women coming from Indiana, do you think that puts Indiana at a better spot in terms of pushing equal representation forward in Congress?
Brooks: I think it does. It will absolutely be helpful. One thing that I am also sensing is happening at an unprecedented level in many ways is that the Indiana delegation is very strong, and we are working in very cooperative ways to make sure that our different areas of expertise are being utilized well. We are working very collaboratively to help each other, but similarly, I plan on working and having a good working relationship with Congressman Carson in Indianapolis since I will be representing Indianapolis as well.
Current: Congressman Dan Burton was a veteran, serving for 30 years, and you are coming in as a freshman Congresswoman. Do you feel that there are a lot of barriers to entry or proving yourself that needs to be done?
Brooks: It is like starting any new job. You do have to prove yourself. You do have to network with colleagues to try to figure out how the place works and how it runs. I plan on networking extensively to try and learn how to be most effective there at getting things done whether that is within the Republican Conference or Democrat Caucus. I am going to have to find what the opportunities are to meet as many of the members of Congress as I can. Times have changed and a lot more people used to live in Washington D.C. than do today. Since Congress has become much more of a commuting body, that means I have to be more strategic during the week to find those opportunities to meet and network with my colleagues, meet with constituents and taking votes as well as learning the issues. I think time management is going to be exceptionally critical.
The one thing that people are telling us is that they don’t want there to be gridlock. They want us to find out how to come to common ground on our positions, and what I’ve learned already in my orientation, much of it has been bipartisan, is the Democrats got the same message the Republicans got. They want us and expect us to work together in ways that past Congresses have not. I’m confident that relationships I made in orientation both within my freshman class and with the Democrats that we can enter into this 113th congress that we can hope to do things a different way than what has been done because people are so frustrating by it. That’s how I am going to spend time. I have a lot of issues to learn about.
It is an exciting time and I’m incredibly thrilled!
Meet Susan Brooks
Birthplace: Fort Wayne
Education: Bachelor of Arts from Miami University of Ohio, Juris Doctor from Indiana University Indianapolis School of Law
Occupation: U.S. Representative – Indiana 5th District
Experience: Deputy Mayor of Indianapolis (1998-1999); Attorney, Ice Miller (1999-2001); U.S. Attorney, Southern District of Indiana (2001-2007); General Counsel and Senior Vice President for Workforce and Economic Development, Ivy Tech Community College (2007-2011)