NEW MEMBER PROFILE

In party lacking diversity, all GOP needs is Love

The most notable thing about the ceremonial swearing-in ceremony of the Congressional Black Caucus was that its highest-profile new member didn't attend. Utah Republican Rep. Ludmya "Mia" Love -- the first black Republican woman elected to Congress and the only member of her party to join the CBC this session -- had other plans that snowy January day.

"Rep. Love had two events scheduled at the same time this morning -- the CBC ceremonial picture and a breakfast meeting with the [House] Financial Services Committee chairman," Love's spokesman, Richard Piatt, explained in an email after the conclusion of that two-hour-long event, which only a handful of the caucus's 46 members missed. "She decided that because of the weather she should go to the breakfast, because she didn't want to be late."

Whether by coincidence or by design, that meeting (coupled with a light dusting of snow) helped give Love a convenient excuse for skipping out on a predictable parade of speeches by CBC officers and Democratic Party leaders, in which Love and her doctrinaire Republican views would have been as out of place on stage as someone wearing a T-shirt and denim shorts.

To some observers, Love's conspicuous absence is further evidence that -- although she's only a freshman congresswoman -- the 39-year-old mother of three is already an experienced operator.

"She's just trying to figure out what she's going to do with [the CBC]," Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University, said in a recent interview. He has closely followed Love's rise, stumble and historic election win.

"Sometimes, if you're not sure what to do, if you can get away with punting -- that's the most politically pragmatic choice," Cann said.

Religious conversion, political awakening

While she now excels at it, Love didn't always have much interest in politics, according to an e-book on the freshman congresswoman from the Salt Lake Tribune. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and raised in Norwalk, Conn., to parents who fled the murderous regime of former Haitian President François "Papa Doc" Duvalier, she and her two older siblings didn't follow current affairs. (Love is also the first Haitian-American member of Congress but has kept her distance from the Democratic-aligned U.S. Haitian community.)

Music was Love's first passion, which she eventually pursued in a musical theater program at Connecticut's University of Hartford. In college, Love, who had been brought up a Catholic, followed her sister Cyndi into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although the Mormons, as followers of the LDS Church are referred to, didn't permit black men of African descent into the priesthood until 1978, Love embraced the faith and converted shortly after graduating.

Around the same time, she was hired as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines and -- with the flexibility provided by her job -- decided in 1998 to move to Utah, the spiritual and cultural home of the LDS Church. In the Beehive State, she got to know Jason Love -- a Mormon she had originally met in Connecticut while he was serving as a missionary. Their first date was at a shooting range; four months later, they got married.

In the years that followed, Love would undergo the political awakening that would ultimately lead her to the floor of the House of Representatives. Love told the Tribune that she was deeply affected by the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 and started tuning into TV news and Sean Hannity's talk-radio show, both of which seem to have helped form her conservative worldview.

But it was a more personal challenge that first prompted her to get involved in politics: how to eliminate swarms of tiny bugs known as midges that were inundating her new house in Saratoga Springs, Utah -- a fledgling suburban development about 35 miles south of Salt Lake City that her husband, a software executive, and children still call home. (Love's sister, Cyndi, and sister-in-law both live nearby with their husbands and are all helping Jason Love with child care while she is in Washington.)

When the developer of the community refused to take care of the pests, Love organized her neighbors and persuaded him to provide them with the equipment needed to eradicate the midges. She also led a fight with the City Council to approve more new homes in the area.

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Emboldened by those experiences, Love, then 28 years old, ran for and won a seat on the council in 2004. After Love was elected to a second term, Saratoga Springs' first and only mayor retired, clearing the way for her to campaign for the top job. At 33, she became the first black female mayor in Utah.

Tea party calling

Soon, Mayor Love, who also worked as a fitness instructor in nearby Lehi City, Utah, was being drafted to run for Congress in a newly created Republican-leaning district by the state director of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group with deep ties to the tea party. She also visited Capitol Hill, where she won over top GOP lawmakers with her compelling life story and the confident stage presence she learned in college.

The Republican establishment rallied around Love in her first congressional campaign. She received $10,000 or more from the political action committees of a half-dozen leading Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, former Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was running for vice president at the time.

Even the Romney family went to bat for the mayor of Saratoga Springs, which then had a population of fewer than 22,000 residents. Both Ann -- the wife of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- and her son Josh endorsed Love.

The Romneys' advocacy helped the small-town mayor secure a highly coveted speaking spot at that year's Republican National Convention. Love's address focused on her experience as a first-generation American, alluded to civil rights heroes Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., and bashed President Obama for "pitting us against each other."

"What makes America great is this idea that we are free -- free to work, free to live, free to choose and free to fail," she said in a campaign video, as footage of her meeting with factory workers flashed across the convention's big screen. "Because our failures make us better."

Love would soon have to take her own words to heart. Despite the overwhelming support she received from prominent conservatives and FreedomWorks, which spent nearly $358,000 backing her, Love lost to Democratic incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson by 768 votes -- a margin of less than 1 percent.

Stumbles over insider trading

Campaign watchers blamed her narrow loss on a series of small but fateful missteps. One example was her proposal to end federally subsidized student loans -- a policy that left Love, who took advantage of government aid to attend college, vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

Cann, the Utah State professor, singled out another blunder that has taken on new significance now that Love will help oversee the financial industry. One voter at a small campaign event asked for her opinion of a loophole in insider trading laws that allowed legislators and their aides to use potentially market-moving information that they learned while working on the Hill to buy and sell securities before such news broke publicly (Greenwire, Oct. 10, 2010). Another potential constituent then elaborated on the issue and asked whether she was aware of it.

"No, that's not what I'm focused on!" she replied. In a brief video of the exchange, Love went on to suggest that she wouldn't trade with other lawmakers if she were elected to Congress.

"It appeared that she did not know what insider trading was -- she kind of fumbled and stuttered and talked around it," Cann said. "I don't know how many Utahans today would recall that specific incident, but it kind of set a tone that people weren't sure whether she was ready to go to D.C. and ready to govern at that time."

Outspent Democratic rival by 5-to-1 margin

Six weeks after her narrow defeat, Love announced her intention to run again in 2014. To prepare for the new effort, Love hit the paid speakers circuit, where she racked up more than $27,000 in fees -- more than double her mayoral salary.

She also hired seasoned campaign manager Dave Hansen. Well-respected in Utah political circles, Hansen had just helped Hatch beat back a serious tea party challenger. His decision to work with Love signaled to potential opponents that she would be a serious contender.

"He came prepared with a great team, and they ran the campaign right from the very beginning," Cann said. During her second run, she was also "more prepared, more up on the issues and better situated to be an effective candidate -- and better prepared to be a good member of the House, for that matter," he added.

When Matheson announced that he would not run for re-election, Love became the clear front-runner.

But she didn't take any chances. Love's team spent nearly $5 million on the race -- over five times more than her Democratic rival, Doug Owens, an attorney and first-time candidate who is the son of the late Rep. Wayne Owens (D-Utah).

She campaigned heavily on the need to reduce the national debt and repeal the Affordable Care Act -- Obama's signature legislative achievement. On energy and environment issues, she supported the Republican Party priorities such as more oil and gas drilling and allowing states to manage federal lands.

Even though it was a wave election for the GOP, in the end, Love barely won "in a district that was gerrymandered for a Republican candidate to expect to win 62 percent of the vote," Tim Chambless, a Hinckley Institute of Politics professor at the University of Utah, said in an interview last month. "Despite all the media coverage and organization, the vote was only 50 to 47 against an outspent, unknown Democratic opponent."

By comparison, Romney took 68 percent of the presidential vote in her conservative district.

The never-ending campaign

Love doesn't seem content to savor her victory. As soon as she got to Washington, the freshman congresswoman engaged in a new campaign to win a seat on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee, which has been fighting for years to roll back Obamacare. Instead, GOP leadership gave her a seat on the Financial Services Committee.

That apparent setback for Love could actually benefit her and her party in the long run. A seat on the "fundraising committee," as it's sometimes referred to inside the Beltway, could help raise Love's standing among her Republican colleagues.

"No one gets into leadership positions or prominent positions in D.C. these days if they're not fundraising for other members in the party," Cann said, pointing to the help Love had on the way up from top GOP figures. "It's just become an essential in D.C. politics today."

More importantly, the well-compensated committee assignment is likely to fill Love's re-election war chest. And she'll need a lot of money to win again in 2016. Some observers expect the Democratic Party, which largely sat out the 2014 race, to spend big money opposing her next time around.

"The Mia Love re-election race is one that folks are going to be looking at -- very much so," Chambless said. But he added, "The banks are going to be contributing, and so she's not going to have a problem getting at least $5 million for her re-election campaign."

'Substantial asset' for the GOP

The GOP establishment will also be pulling hard for Love to win again, Cann suggested. "Republicans really want to be able to showcase when they have an opportunity to put someone up who, quite frankly, is just not a white male, to say that the party has broader appeal," he said, alluding to her distinctive braided hair and camera-ready persona.

Perhaps equally important for Republicans is Love's Haitian-immigrant, working-class roots, Cann added. "For the party nationally to be able to have someone with her background, to be able to stand up for the party and the party's position, is a substantial asset for them."

Love's symbolic value to the GOP became clear even before the new session of Congress began, when news broke that House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) attended a 2002 white supremacist workshop on promoting European-American civil rights. In a closely watched Jan. 4 appearance on ABC's "This Week," Love helped to quell the controversy by expressing her support for Scalise, who had apologized the week before for his involvement with the group.

"As far as I'm concerned, with Rep. Scalise, he has been absolutely wonderful to work with. He's been very helpful for me, and he has had the support of his colleagues," Love said.

"I believe he should remain in leadership," she added. "There's one quality that he has that I think is very important in leadership, and that's humility. And he's actually shown that in this case."

Despite calls for his resignation from USA Today and other editorial boards, as well as influential conservative activists like Erick Erickson, Scalise held onto the House GOP's third-ranking post.

Aside from a pre-State of the Union appearance on Fox News, Love has largely avoided the media spotlight since then. Piatt, her spokesman, declined to make the Utah Republican available for this profile.

"This is still a very busy time for Rep. Love," Piatt wrote in an email last week. "At this point we've made an effort to get her up to speed on her committee assignment."

As Love's early insider trading gaffe suggests, she has a lot to learn about the industry that GOP leadership has assigned her to oversee. Love rarely mentioned banking or the financial services industry during her runs for Congress and still has no information about the topic on either her campaign website or official House site. (On the latter, it simply says, "For more information concerning work and views related to Financial Services, please contact our office.")

CBC 'window dressing benefitting no one'

With all that on Love's plate and Owens, her Democratic rival, considering another run, observers expect her to spend the next two years more focused on her 2016 re-election race than the CBC -- a group she once pledged to take "apart from the inside out."

"She has bigger issues in terms of building bridges with her constituency -- and that needs to be priority No. 1 if she wants to stay in Congress," said Cann, the Utah State professor. "I don't think she's figured out how involvement with the CBC fits into that yet. She may hold them at arm's length in the meantime."

If Love remains a caucus member in name only, it would be a big disappointment to some black leaders, who are cautiously optimistic that she can elevate the concerns of the CBC within the traditionally white-dominated GOP.

"A possible value Love may bring to the CBC is as a communication conduit to the conservative Republicans who in January take control of Congress," the editorial board of AFRO, a D.C.-area African-American newspaper founded in 1892, wrote shortly after Love was elected. "Not only may she assist the CBC to understand conservative positions and strategies, but in return serve as a mechanism for increasing the conservative sensitivity to issues important to the Black community."

However, the editorial concluded, "Absent her willingness or ability to work with the CBC in this and other meaningful ways, her presence in the midst of the CBC would only be window dressing benefitting no one."

Twitter: @corbinhiar | Email: chiar@eenews.net

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