Former U.S. Congresswoman Susan Molinari (born 1958), the highest ranking woman elected to a position of leadership in the House of Representatives (as vice chair of the Republican Conference, 1996), left politics in 1997 for a career in television broadcasting.
Susan Molinari seemed destined for politics. Her grandfather, S. Robert Molinari, was a member of the New York State Assembly and her father, Guy V. Molinari, was a member of Congress and Staten Island Borough President. In 1996, shortly before Molinari quit, she had reached a high point in her political career as the keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention. She was hailed as one of the bright new stars on the Republican political scene by many, including such periodicals as Time.
Growing Up Political
Susan Molinari was born in Staten Island, New York, on March 27, 1958, to Guy V. and Marguerite (Wing) Molinari. As a child, she attended political rallies with her father. Raised in the state of New York, Molinari later attended the State University of New York in Albany. In 1981, having graduated cum laude in communications, with a master's in political communications, she decided to move to Washington, D.C., to pursue a career. Molinari was very familiar with politics, and broadened her knowledge while an undergraduate by serving as an intern for State Senator Christopher Mega.
After arriving in Washington, D.C., following her graduate studies, Molinari worked for the Republican Governors' Association as a financial assistant. Beginning in 1983, she served a year as the ethnic-community liaison with the Republican National Committee. She moved back to New York to campaign for public office in the mid-1980s. Her efforts were successful and, at the age of 28, Molinari was elected to the New York City Council. She earned two distinctions with that election: recognition as the youngest-ever council member and the title of council minority leader. A leader of one, it would turn out, as Molinari was the sole Republican to sit on the council. With this position also came a $20, 000 tax-payer-financed stipend and a chauffeur-driven car. It was a promising start for a woman not yet 30.
In 1990, Molinari was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 14th New York District, which consisted of Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn. The area was reconfigured into the 13th Congressional District by the time she ran for and won reelection in 1992. During these years in political office, she saw her first marriage to John Lucchesi, a Staten Island limousine company owner, come to an end. Married in 1988, by 1992 the couple had separated and divorced. In 1994, Molinari married fellow politician William Paxon, a congressman from Buffalo, New York. He had proposed the previous year while kneeling on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. According to Craig Bromberg of People, Molinari's response to the proposal was, "You're not doing this here?" When it became clear that Paxon was indeed proposing then and there, Molinari hastily agreed: "Yes, but get up!" The couple would have one daughter, Susan Ruby.
Molinari, a moderate Republican, was known for her stance on women's rights. In the New Yorker, Judith Shulevitz, a policy analyst at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, asserted that Molinari's "reputation as an urban moderate rests largely on a commitment to abortion rights." In December of 1994, Rich Lowry's profile of Molinari appeared in the National Review. He reported that Molinari "was one of four Republicans … to join 68 Democrats this June in signing a letter to House Speaker Tom Foley warning that a 'health care reform that does not include coverage of abortion treats women as second class citizens."' Meryl Gordon later quoted Molinari in a Harper's Bazaar interview: "I have friends who had abortions and in some cases it probably saved their lives in terms of mental stability."
In 1995, Molinari was considered the highest-ranking woman in the House. By the age of 32, she had won the vice-chairmanship of the House Republican Conference, and was then described by Shulevitz as "No. 5 in [House Speaker] Newt Gingrich's inner circle." On the surface, this powerful woman worked hard for women's rights. She continually pushed for stronger domestic-violence laws and the Gender Equity Act, which included, among other things, an emphasis on promoting gender equity in college sports. She was proud of what Lowry would call a "signature contribution to the Violence Against Women Act, a provision making it easier for judges to admit into evidence previous unproved allegations against defendants in sex-crime cases." All of these policies would make Molinari a Republican that women could empathize with and support. In an article which appeared in Newsday, Mary Voboril quoted Frank Luntz, a Washington Republican communications consultant: "She appeals particularly well to working women, and she's got a bubbly sense of enthusiasm that Republicans so often lack. They often seem so dour and depressing."
In 1996, Molinari was chosen to deliver the keynote address at the Republican National Convention. The keynote speaker at a political convention presents the issues relevant to the assembly, and also sets the convention tone, inspiring unity and enthusiasm. Molinari did just that. She did cause controversy, however, when she refused to mention abortion in her speech. She defended her choice by commenting to Voboril in the Newsday article that the purpose of the convention was to unify and that abortion "is an issue that divides Republicans, divides Democrats and, frankly, divides probably every family in America." As noted in Commonweal, Molinari was the ideal choice as a keynote speaker for the Republicans: "Molinari is a Catholic ethnic of the baby-boomer generation who is a) pro-choice, b) divorced, and c) a mother with a professional career…. [B]oth parties are trying to appeal to voters with similar profiles."
Is There Life After Politics?
Molinari startled a good many people when she announced her retirement from politics in 1997, leaving Congress before her term of office had ended. Although many speculated that her decision was family related, Molinari claimed to be pursuing a life-long desire to be in front of the television camera. As Newsweek contributor Jonathan Alter declared: "What's so striking about her decision is that instead of explaining it as a way to spend more time with her 1-year-old daughter, … she says the move is the fulfillment of a personal dream." In an article for Family Circle Molinari noted, "Having majored in communications, I'd always dreamed of a position in broadcast news, but never thought it a possibility. Suddenly, the opportunity to join CBS presented the best of all worlds. In a different context, I could remain involved in national affairs and pursue a lifelong passion. Although my new job will be challenging, I expect to have somewhat more predictable hours, allowing me more time with my daughter."
Molinari was named news co-anchor on the program CBS News Saturday Morning in May of 1997. The broadcast premiered in September of that year, and was met with positive reviews. Molinari has commented that her congressional background gives her an advantage as a television news reporter, and her skills in evading questions as a political figure will help her recognize the tactic in guests, making her a sharp interviewer. With co-anchor Russ Mitchell, Molinari provides viewers of CBS News Saturday Morning an intelligent alternative to cartoons.
Maintaining a busy schedule even though no longer in Congress, Molinari commutes to Manhattan every week from the Washington, D.C., area. In 1998, she published her memoirs, Representative Mom: Balancing Budget, Bill, and Baby in the U.S. Congress. Written with Elinor Burkett, the volume presents Molinari's years in the political arena. A reviewer in Booklist noted, "Perhaps more interesting, though, than Molinari's personal story is the insider's look she provides at the U.S. Congress." When asked about her decision to leave the House of Representatives, Molinari was quoted in the National Review as saying: "As an American I am sorry. As a wife and mother I couldn't be happier."
Further Reading on Susan Molinari
Booklist, March 15, 1998.
Commonweal, September 27, 1996.
Harper's Bazaar, May 1995, pp. 73-74; November 1997, pp. 52-53.
Family Circle, November 18, 1997, p. 152.
National Review, May 1995; April 6, 1998.
Newsday, July 17, 1996, p. A6; August 1, 1996, p. A22; August 10, 1996, p. A6; August 12, 1996, p. B4; August 16, 1996, p. A4.
Newsweek, June 9, 1997.
New Yorker, February 26, 1996.
Parade, October 5, 1997, pp. 5-6.
People, October 25, 1993.
Time, August 19, 1996; June 9, 1997; April 27, 1998.
CBS News, http://126.96.36.199/news/saturdaymorning/bios/smolinari.shtml (May 14, 1998).