Lynn Woolsey vividly remembers the stigma of buying her groceries with food stamps, the poverty of paying her doctor with Medi-Cal, the feeling of relief each time her welfare check arrived.
That was more than two decades ago, but the harsh recollection has hardly faded at all; it was a desperate time for a single mother and her three young children suddenly left on their own.
Now, her three years of public assistance checks have become important once again as she campaigns to become the first former welfare mother in the nation to win a seat in Congress.
Day after day on the campaign trail, Woolsey keeps the painful memory alive, rarely missing an opportunity to tell voters she understands the nature of poverty because she was once there.
"I've walked my talk," she likes to say. "It makes me a different kind of politician."
Woolsey is a successful businesswoman and Petaluma councilwoman who is almost certain to win election Nov. 3 to the 6th Congressional District seat representing Marin and Sonoma counties.
Running as a Democrat in a heavily Democratic district, she holds a commanding lead in the polls. Her opponent, veteran Republican Assemblyman William J. Filante, is stricken with a deadly form of brain cancer and is waging only a shadow of a campaign. Rep. Barbara Boxer (D-Greenbrae) is giving up the seat to run for the U.S. Senate.
The idea of a former welfare mother taking a seat in Congress has generated excitement among public policy advocates in Washington who deal daily with issues of poverty, welfare and child care.
"She has the opportunity to become a very important, unique voice in the Congress on these issues," said Ellen Nissenbaum, legislative director of the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "I think she can bring new understanding and new sensitivity to these issues for members of Congress."
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose family was on welfare during most of her childhood, agreed. "I think it's great," she said. "She brings with her an understanding of what it means to be a mother on welfare. She understands the system and how it works."
Woolsey, an engaging, serious-minded candidate who turns 55 on Election Day, is running as an agent of change who would challenge the "good old boy system" of the male-dominated Congress.
In the "Year of the Woman" in politics, she cites her experience on welfare as evidence of the need for a strong federal commitment to single-parent families, adequate child care and proper health care.
"It is clear that our government is out of balance and out of touch, and it's going to take people with different life experiences to change it," Woolsey said. "We need people, who like me, have lived these issues and know how very important they are to other people."
A native of Seattle, Woolsey was leading what she calls a "Leave It to Beaver" life in Marin County during the 1960s when her marriage disintegrated. Her husband, a successful stockbroker, became emotionally ill, she said, and was unable to support her and their three children, ages 1, 3 and 5.
She fell behind on payments for their big house in suburban Corte Madera and was forced to sell it. She returned the new station wagon to the car dealership and bought an old VW Beetle. On the advice of an employment counselor, she lied about her personal situation and got a job as a secretary in a new electronics manufacturing company. But she still could not make ends meet.
So in 1968, she applied for Aid to Families With Dependent Children. While continuing to work, she received a monthly stipend along with food stamps and Medi-Cal health coverage.
"I think probably the hardest part of it for me was the food stamps," she said, "standing in the line and paying with food stamps and having everybody in the store know it."
One of her biggest problems was finding someone to take care of her children while she worked. In the first year, she went through 13 baby-sitters until she enrolled her youngest child in one of Marin's first child-care centers. She was often late to the office and could never work late.
"I went through periods of despair, of such an overwhelming responsibility and not being prepared for it," she said. "If I had not had that safety net, I would really have despaired."
After three years, Woolsey was finally able to get off welfare when she married a co-worker who had a young son.
In some ways, Woolsey was typical of those who seek aid: She was forced to go on public assistance because of loss of support from her husband, she stayed on welfare a relatively short time, and it was only her remarriage that allowed her to escape poverty.
But she also had many advantages other welfare mothers do not. The daughter of a veterinarian, she had two years of college and held a job before her first marriage. By her own account, she was more determined and self-assured than many welfare mothers.
"I was lucky," she said. "I was educated. I could speak English and I was assertive. How does a woman less fortunate than myself get through this?"
As the company she worked for grew from 13 employees to more than 700, she rose to become human resources manager. After getting a business degree at night school, she started an employment agency, Woolsey Personnel Service, in 1980.
Active in local Petaluma politics, she won election to the City Council in 1984 on an anti-growth platform and was reelected in 1988.
It was not until her primary campaign for Congress this year that her welfare past began to resurface. It happened almost by accident as she tried to tell voters what made her different. Until then, she had said so little about it that one of her sons did not even realize the family had been on welfare.
Now it has become a prominent part of her campaign, described in her mailers as one of her political assets. At local forums, a hush falls over her audiences as she tells her story.
"It's just ingrained in me all the way down to my toes," she said. "I know that people don't want to be on welfare. That is not something you would choose to do. You would much rather have a job, earn a family wage and have safe, quality child care available to you."
Woolsey's experience on aid mirrors that of about 8 million American mothers who at one time or another in the past decade have received public assistance but who are not represented in Congress by one of their own.
"The world can't be run by middle-aged white men forever," said Waters, one of only three California women in Congress.
Her arrival in Congress, welfare experts said, could help break down the stereotype of welfare mothers as minority women with many children who stay on the dole for life.
"Too often, the debates about welfare policy are conducted without the perspective of people who have actually experienced the programs," said Mark Greenberg, a senior staff attorney with the nonpartisan Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington. "I think it would be very positive if both parties began offering candidates who have experienced the welfare system."
6th Congressional District