Physician, Heal Thy Deficit
Ophthalmologist-turned-Congresswoman Nan Hayworth hopes her political vision is 20/20 when it comes to tackling the biggest issues facing her on Capitol Hill.
Photo Courtesy of U.S. House of Representatives
It wasn’t a particularly unusual scene for Fox Lane Middle School: an instructor stood in front of a large group, clicking through a PowerPoint presentation and explaining new vocabulary words. It could have been a class in Government 101, as the teacher defined “continuing resolutions” and showed bar graphs to explain the decreasing funds for Social Security.
“Mandatory spending is entitlement programs: that’s program spending, programmatic promises that we’ve made to Americans,” the instructor explained. “Discretionary spending includes all of our defense budget, all of our foreign relations expenditures.”
This particular lesson, however, came during a town hall meeting led by Congresswoman Nan Hayworth, addressing her concerned constituents.
Joined by a state legislator, Hayworth gave a short presentation breaking down federal spending into colored pie charts.
The crowd was mixed: Some, clearly Democrats, questioned Hayworth on her support for a controversial bill that, among other things, proposed defunding Planned Parenthood. Others, in the more conservative camp, took exasperated breaths when Democrats asked long, five-part questions. The most colorful—a couple of elderly women calling themselves the Raging Grannies—worried about the nuclear plant in the district, Indian Point, recently named the nation’s most unsafe.
Throughout the meeting (her third that day), Hayworth remained calm and collected, never raising her voice or seeming flustered by questions. She just sat and listened, talking with her hands, wearing a tight, empathetic smile.
“You’ve got to stand up for yourself more! Some of those people, they were just rude and you didn’t say anything,” her husband, Scott Hayworth, lamented as they walked out to their car after the event. “I tell Nan that sometimes she’s too nice. Sometimes, people just get mean and she doesn’t say anything.“
“I know, I know, I try to always be respectful,” the congresswoman cuts in. “I give everyone their chance to talk. Plus, I find that when people get themselves worked up and start yelling, it just ends up making them look worse. So really it makes my point for me.”
“I just wish they were more respectful to you,” Scott says.
Not long ago, Hayworth herself was getting a crash course in civics. She’s just four months into her first term as the representative for New York’s large, suburban 19th Congressional District, which comprises parts of Westchester, Orange, Rockland, and Dutchess counties as well as all of Putnam, one of the six New York seats taken by Republicans in November’s elections. Hayworth beat out two-term Democrat John Hall with a surprisingly comfortable margin of 54-46 before Hall conceded.
A recurring theme in Republican challengers’ campaigns was their “outside” status, as compared to Washington’s supposedly immoral insiders. After 16 years as a Mount Kisco ophthalmologist, Hayworth is the very definition of a Washington outsider. “If you would’ve told us two-and-a-half years ago that Nan was going to be in Congress, we would’ve said ‘Huh?’” Scott Hayworth said as he drove his wife to the Mount Kisco Diner after the meeting.
But the bold move is in Hayworth’s character. “My mother would say when I was eleven months old, I ran, I never walked,” Nan said.
Born in Munster, Indiana, Hayworth, 51, met her husband when they were undergraduates at Princeton University. They both went on to study at Weill Cornell Medical College and, in 1988, moved to Mount Kisco. Seven years after starting her own practice as an ophthalmologist, Nan joined Scott as a partner at the Mount Kisco Medical Group, where he currently is the CEO and a practicing gynecologist. She retired from full-time practice in 2005 before working for the healthcare consultant firm of Cline Davis & Mann in Manhattan as a scientific expert. Then, in 2009, she saw a new career path entirely.
“I felt like I was being beckoned by my future self,” Hayworth says of her desire to run for Congress. “I’ve always been a policy wonk—I fell asleep with the remote in my hand in 2002 waiting for the results to come in from Polk County.”
“You know the old saying that the wife reads the local news and the husband reads the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal?” she says. “For us it was the opposite. Scott’s like, ‘Oh honey, there’s a sale at Kohl’s,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh no, I can’t go shopping, not with the deficit where it is.’”
While she says it wasn’t a single event or policy that drew her to government, she felt “a general sense” that the federal government was growing too large for its own good. This is the first time she ever ran for office, local or otherwise, and she doesn’t think that her lack of professional government experience is a problem. “We have a noble tradition in this country of the citizen legislation,” she says. “I didn’t have trepidations in that way.”
Throughout the campaign, Hayworth focused on “fiscal responsibility” and curtailing what she called the federal government’s “unconscionable spending spree.” She now sits on the financial services committee (“I’m thrilled to be on financial service and I’m not saying that facetiously,”) along with fellow New York freshman Rep. Michael Grimm from Staten Island.
Tea Party activists have never been completely smitten with Hayworth due to her centrist stance on social issues, including her pro-choice stance on abortion, and she did not receive their support until after the primary. Hayworth’s vote against Planned Parenthood funding in late February helped restore their faith, but her move supporting the continuing resolution that prevented a government shut-down as budget negotiations hammered on brought her loyalties back into question.
“The vote for the CR did rub a lot of us in the wrong way, because there was a feeling that it was a retreat,” says Bob Fois, a Westchester county Tea Party activist, who is a political consultant and conservative blogger. “A lot of people are going to see what she does.”
The fact that a pro-choice woman, let alone a doctor, would vote to defund Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides free health services, which include preventative health screenings and check ups along with, yes, abortions, seems counterintuitive at first. “She has been speaking with forked tongues: she says one thing but her behavior and her votes represent something else,” says Beverly Katz, communications director of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, which oversees the organization’s four Westchester health centers.
But Hayworth counters that, for her, it comes back to the taxpayers. She thinks that her vote, which would seemingly align her with more conservative Republicans, does not alienate her from her pro-choice supporters. “They’re not incompatible,” she says. “There’s a difference between having the right to do something and having someone else pay for it. By all means exercise your right, but, if someone else is paying for it, you have to respect their wishes.” (Since 1976, the Hyde Amendment has prohibited federal funding for abortion in all but extreme cases.)
In addition to the inherent accountability that comes with elected office, one of the biggest adjustments for Hayworth has been the responsibility that comes with Republicans taking back the House. “Being in the majority does carry with it certain burdens. It’s rather like being the revolutionary as opposed to being the governing body.”
She’s also had to adjust to a new lifestyle. She returns to her home in Bedford every weekend but spends much of that time traveling to public events across her large district.
“I haven’t seen her in three weeks,” Scott Hayworth said in the car. “She works all the time! Sometimes till two or three in the morning!”
“No I don’t, not that late!” the Congresswoman argued.
“Yes—I call you and you don’t answer—”
“That’s because I leave the office probably around eleven, and then, as soon as I get to the apartment, I just pass out on the couch.”
“And then you’re back up at five…”
“Yeah, yeah, I am,” she said sheepishly.
For Scott, it helps that the couple’s two sons are older: Will, 20, is a senior at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and Jack, 18, is a high school senior headed to Johns Hopkins in the fall.
“I’ve basically been a single parent,” Scott says of the family’s post-election life. “I’m busy anyway, because then I’m not
sitting around at home waiting for her to come back.”
After spending time talking to Hayworth, it is clear that she is very appreciative. She constantly refers to her “privilege” of representing her constituents and the “honor” that she has the opportunity to serve. And while she is quick to admit she sounds a bit like a Pollyanna at times, it really does appear genuine. “There are pinch me moments every day,” she says. One recent such moment was when she spent time at the West Point Military Academy and was introduced to the cadets. (“How lucky do you get to be?” she said of the trip.)
So, if this opportunity means that she gets a little less sleep and no free time, that’s all part of the honor. A perfect day for the self-proclaimed history nut would be spent wandering through some of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, but she definitely isn’t expecting that anytime soon. Right now, she’s busy.
“Good Lord willing, I will deserve a second term, and perhaps in a second term, I will take a couple days off,” she says.
Hayworth says her new lifestyle has benefits, however. “What has intrigued me since I’ve been in Congress is that I live two lives in parallel: one is in Washington and one is in the district. People say, ‘Oh you’re in the House, you have to run every two years, poor thing.’ I cherish it, I embrace it!”
Some things are still the same. Hayworth retains a sweet tooth, and thus immediately eyes the cake display when she walks into the diner. As always, she orders the fudgey chocolate cake—but now, she orders black coffee as well.
In the middle of the cake break, Scott leaves the table to greet some patients sitting in a booth across the room. Then he does a lap of the diner.
“Sorry to interrupt, hon, but you’ve got five tables to stop by before we head out,” he says.
Some things are a little different.
Meghan Keneally, born and raised in Westchester, is a freelance journalist based in Manhattan. She is a political fiend and first started writing about Congresswoman Hayworth during her 2010 campaign.