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The House is not a home

A member of Congress struggles to decide which comes first: career or family.

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 30, 2001


photo
[Photo: Susana Raab]
U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, a graduate of Notre Dame, keeps a tentative hold on his daughter Sarah, 4, during an event held at the White House to celebrate the national championship won by Notre Dame’s women’s basketball team.
WASHINGTON -- For Tim Roemer, last October was the low point.

There he was -- a United States representative,a rising star in Democratic politics, maybe a senator some day -- negotiating with House leaders about whether he could take his kids trick or treating.

The leaders had scheduled a vote for 6 p.m. on Oct. 31, when the streets in Roemer's suburban Virginia neighborhood would be aswarm with Pikachus and Powerpuff Girls.

For weeks, Roemer and his kids had been getting psyched about the big day. Matthew was going to be Cal Ripken, Sarah was going to be a princess, and Patrick was going to be a ghost. Roemer and his wife, Sally, had planned on taking them door to door, a nice break from Tim's tough re-election campaign back in Indiana.

But the Congressional Grinch was about to steal Halloween.

It wouldn't have been so bad if this were the first time his job had come between Roemer and his family. But he'd been away from home hundreds of nights and had missed countless family dinners and good-night kisses.

Now it was happening again, and for what? A bill to continue a political stalemate.

The bill would keep the government open for another day while Congress and President Clinton quibbled over federal spending. Those bills always passed by huge margins, so if a few parents took their kids trick or treating, the future of the Republic would not be in jeopardy.

photo
[Photo: AP]
Rep. Tim Roemer (D-Ind.)
But with just a week before the election, Roemer did not want to miss a vote. He could imagine the headline in his opponent's TV ads: Roemer misses key vote.

And so, after hearing that several other House members shared his feelings, Roemer asked party leaders to move the vote to a better time.

The top Democrats didn't mind, but the Republicans wouldn't budge. The vote would go on as scheduled at 6.

Roemer, 44, rushed home and did a round of late afternoon trick or treating with his kids, but hardly anyone was home to give out candy. He then hurried back to the Capitol.

He made it in time for the vote but was furious about the whole experience. In his campaigns he had stressed that he was a good legislator and a family man. Now he was wondering if it was possible to be both.

photo One of U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer’s children crossed out his name on his business card and substituted the title he is called at home.

[Photo: Susana Raab]

Where their families aren't

stickerThe House of Representatives, often called "the people's house," is supposed to be a mirror of the nation. But it's a lousy place to work if you're a parent of small kids.

Votes often stretch into the wee hours. The schedule can be unpredictable because the parties use delaying tactics and other stunts to gain advantages over each other. It's hard for a mom or dad to get home for dinner, or to a PTA meeting or school play.

Balancing work and family is especially hard because members travel so much. They must spend lots of time in their districts to stay in touch with constituents and campaign for re-election. And when Congress is in session -- about 130 days every year -- they have to be in Washington. Inevitably, they spend a lot of time where their families aren't.

Moms and dads in Congress don't get much help with these problems. Charlie Cook, the publisher of the Cook Political Report, says congressional leaders -- men in their 50s, for the most part -- are out of touch with the needs of young parents.

"You look at the leadership, and it tends to be people with no kids or with kids grown and gone -- or they were so driven that their kids were secondary," Cook said. "A lot of them did not get to those leadership positions by being fathers of the year."

Sally Roemer says she and Tim always knew life in the House could be hard on families.

"I can't tell you how many friends we have (in Congress) where the families are falling apart, their kids get screwed up. We were bound and determined that we weren't going to do it that way."

But as Tim Roemer learned, a dad can't do much when he's in the House but not at home.

The Chinese food incident

Roemer says his parents worked hard to balance family and career.

His father gave up a promotion at Lockheed to spend more time with his five children. His mother was a stay-at-home mom until the kids were in high school. But Roemer's parents also taught their children that they had an obligation to help other people. Politics, the Roemer kids were taught, is a noble calling.

Tim and Sally met on a blind date in 1988. He was a congressional aide with TV-anchorman good looks and moderate Hoosier politics. She was the daughter of U.S. Sen. Bennett Johnston and a grad student at Georgetown University.

She fell in love with him after the Chinese food incident.

They'd eaten dinner in Washington's Chinatown section and were headed back to the Virginia suburbs when Roemer suddenly pulled over to the curb.

"Hang on," he said, hopping out of the car with their leftover food. He handed the carton to a homeless man sitting on a heating grate and then got back in the car. Sally was touched by his kindness, and about a year later they were married.

Soon they moved back to his hometown of South Bend, Ind., so he could run for Congress. Roemer knocked on 30,000 doors and narrowly beat the incumbent.

At his congressional orientation in 1991, Roemer and the other freshmen got some important advice from former House Speaker Tip O'Neill. He said, "Move your families to Washington where you can see them and love them."

The Roemers followed O'Neill's advice, buying a big house in Great Falls, Va., a wealthy suburb about 30 minutes from the Capitol. Patrick arrived in 1993, Matt in 1994 and Sarah in 1997. Great Falls was a perfect place to raise a family, with giant back yards and excellent schools.

In congressional directories, Roemer is listed as "D-South Bend." He refers to the town as his home and visits about twice a month. But he has not owned or rented a house there for several years. When he visits his district, he stays with his uncle.

His true home is where his wife and kids are, in Great Falls.

He never thought it would become a campaign issue.

No hope of a family dinner

For years, Roemer crusaded to make Congress more family-friendly. He sought a more predictable schedule and a room near the House floor where members could see their spouses and kids.

Like many other congressional parents, he disliked the standard practice of starting the congressional week with a 6 p.m. vote on a Monday or Tuesday. That is supposed to allow members to fly back from their districts, but Roemer says it rules out any hope of a family dinner for House members with kids in the Washington area. By the time he finishes voting and heads home, the kids are in their pajamas or already asleep.

Roemer believes family dinners are a crucial part of parenting. He says the dinner table may be the only place parents can find out about the bully on the playground or other childhood worries.

He says parents need more than quality time with their kids. They need quantity time.

Responding to complaints from Roemer and others, House Speaker Newt Gingrich promised in the mid-1990s to make the schedule more accommodating to parents. He created the family room, but the scheduling promises were largely forgotten amid the push for his Contract with America.

Roemer says the insensitivity to families crosses party lines. Republicans and Democrats "have done an equally poor job."

He believes there are serious implications to making the Capitol so hostile to younger parents. The average age in the House and Senate is 55 -- and getting older. If Congress doesn't become more accommodating to parents, he says, it will continue to be dominated by older members who are insensitive to the needs of children.

"In the people's house," he says, "you want families that are struggling with the things that Congress is talking about."

Bleary-eyed and cranky

Sally was in labor.

As Roemer raced away from the Capitol last July 19, he was determined to get home quickly and then rush her back to Washington to Sibley Hospital. This was baby No. 4, so he was a veteran of the labor-delivery routine. But he was stuck in traffic and was beginning to worry he wouldn't make it in time.

When he called Sally with an update, she offered to get a ride from someone else. "I could just meet you at the hospital," she said.

"No," Roemer declared. 'I'm taking my wife to the hospital to have our baby." He'd missed enough family events because of his job. He was not going to miss this one.

But a few minutes later, the traffic had barely moved. He called again and said he would meet her at the hospital.

He didn't get to take Sally to the hospital but made it in plenty of time for the birth. Grace was a beautiful, happy baby, but she rarely slept.

Many nights, she got up every hour, leaving her parents bleary-eyed and cranky.

"I was going out of my mind," Sally recalls. She had all the parenting duties for the other three kids -- breakfast, car pools, lunches, more car pools -- plus the baby who would not sleep.

To make matters worse, Roemer was in a brutal re-election campaign in which Sally and their kids had become the biggest issue.

photo
[Photo: AP]
Chris Chocola, Roemer’s Republican opponent during the 2000 race, publicly criticized the Roemers for making their home in Washington, D.C., instead of South Bend.
In speeches and TV ads, Republican Chris Chocola criticized Roemer for having his home in Virginia instead of Indiana. Chocola said it showed Roemer was out of touch with his constituents.

"Tim Roemer does not own property here in the 3rd District," Chocola said at a September news conference. "He does not pay property taxes here in the 3rd District. He doesn't want people to know that his primary residence is in Great Falls, Va." Chocola held the news conference outside Roemer's district office because he said that was the address Roemer used for his Indiana driver's license.

It was a miserable time for Roemer.

He was preoccupied and exhausted. He tried to help Sally with the kids but often had to stay for late votes at the Capitol. Every chance he got, he flew back to South Bend for campaign events. When his sons saw Chocola's ads, they would ask their father, "Why are they saying those things about you, Daddy?"

Roemer felt he had four jobs -- husband, father, congressman and candidate -- and he wasn't doing any of them well.

"There was so much pressure on him," says Sally. "Everybody wanted his time . . . the whole thing was just terrible."

Sally wanted to fire back at Chocola in a TV ad. She wanted to say that the way she and Tim raised their kids was their own business and not a political issue. The ad was never made, however, because Tim did not want to respond to Chocola's attacks.

But when Chocola raised the issue in a televised debate, Roemer was blunt about his desire to do what was best for his family.

"I'm going to spend every moment I can with those four children and my wife, and raise them to the best of my ability, especially when I find myself in Washington, D.C., in October," Roemer said.

And then he took a big risk. He admitted that his career was secondary.

"My most important job is as a father, not as a congressman," he said. "If that's unpopular, so be it."

photo
[Photo: AP]
In November 2000 five-term U.S. Rep. Tim Roemer, from Indiana’s 3rd District, celebrates winning the race against Republican Chris Chocola.

No way to live

About 1 a.m. the day after the election, the results came in. Roemer beat Chocola 52 to 47 percent.

At last, Sally could respond to Chocola's attacks. She told reporters, "We've chosen to have four children. They were not accidents. We're not going to run away from that. It's a responsibility we gladly take on. However, I have no plans to raise four children by myself, okay?"

The campaign had been hard on the family. In the three months before Election Day, Roemer had missed nearly every dinner with his wife and kids. Sally remembers thinking, "This is no way to live." But she did not urge Tim to leave Congress.

"I didn't want to push him from a job that he loved," she says.

Privately, though, Roemer had been stewing about his future. During the campaign, as he spoke to a church group or visited a factory, he often wondered if it was the last time he would visit.

Politically, he could probably stay. The large number of Republicans in his district meant he would never have an easy campaign, but he was likely to get a more favorable district when the lines were re-drawn before the next election.

He loved his job. He relished the opportunities to meet with world leaders and strike deals with senators. He passed 10 bills in his 10 years in Congress, a surprisingly good record for a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Congress, and felt he truly made a difference.

But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that he was missing his only chance to see his kids grow up. If he stayed in Congress, there would be more Halloween votes, more missed tee-ball games and too many nights away.

It was time to get out.

In January, Tim Roemer stood before a group of reporters at the South Bend, Ind., courthouse and told them he couldn't take it anymore. He will not seek re-election when his term ends next year.

"Sally and I have concluded that it is no longer possible for me to meet the many demands of serving in Congress and to completely fulfill my responsibilities as a husband and father," he said.

Some Republicans have suggested Roemer was afraid of another tough race, but people who have followed Roemer closely say his motives were pure.

"It is next to impossible for a member of Congress representing a swing state or district to be a good father or mother, a good member of Congress, and get re-elected year after year," wrote Cook, the political analyst who follows House races. "Something has got to give."

Cook warned that Congress is so hostile to parents that "unless something happens soon, there will be many more Tim Roemers, or many more broken congressional families."

Roemer says he isn't sure what he will do next, except that it may involve education, which has been his main issue in Congress. But whatever he does, he will be home a lot more with Sally and the kids.

"If you're not there on a daily basis, the sand just doesn't go back in the hourglass," he says. "That time is gone."

photo
[Photo: Susana Raab]
With the Old Executive Office Building behind her and mere steps from the White House’s Oval Office, Sarah Roemer tries out a swing.

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