Hanging With the Big Boys : Politics: Freshman representative Majorie Margolies-Mezvinsky plays rough when she has to in a tough district.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky arrived at her office for an interview carrying a carton of eggs.

Apologizing for being late, she explained that she had stopped by a congressional "omelet do" in hopes of getting a fast lunch, but the cooking had just ended. "So they gave me a dozen eggs instead."

As the freshman Democrat who cast the vote that saved the first Clinton budget, Margolies-Mezvinsky is not about to refuse a contribution.

Elected in 1992 by a scant 1,300 votes in a wealthy suburban Philadelphia district that is 2-to-1 registered Republican, she is running hard to persuade constituents that, despite breaking her promise not to increase taxes when she voted for that budget, she deserves a second term.

"I will always, always have a very, very tough district," she said during the interview, conducted literally on the run as she sprinted between her office and the House floor. "There are certain people who will never vote for me, and the budget vote gave them a real platform."

Media-savvy from a prior career as a television reporter, Margolies-Mezvinsky has crafted a platform of her own.

Aided by a former Washington Post researcher, Barbara Feinman, she has written a book about her experiences and those of 23 other women first sent to the House of Representatives in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman.

The book, "A Woman's Place: The Freshmen Women Who Changed the Face of Congress" (Crown, 1994) is full of anecdotes about chauvinist slings and arrows in an institution that, despite a rise in female representation from 29 to 48, is still 90% male.

For example, while congressmen invariably refer to each other as "my distinguished colleague" from such and such a state, they often call women members by their first names, she wrote.

When Rep. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) publicly called Margolies-Mezvinsky "that three M girl," she was irked not so much by the shorthand for her tongue-twisting moniker--her own campaign T-shirts say "MMM"--as by the noun.

"Referring to me at age 51 as a 'girl' is inaccurate, demeaning and pathetically behind the times," she wrote.

The slight pales next to one experienced by another freshman.

During a debate over the Hyde amendment restricting the use of federal funds for abortions, veteran Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) told Rep. Corinne Brown (D-Fla.) to "shut up" when she objected to his request to speak.

The Hyde amendment easily passed.

"Getting here is only half the magic act; the task at hand is to carve out our own place," Margolies-Mezvinsky wrote.

For the time being, her task is to remain in place.

Recalling her climactic Aug. 5 action, she wrote: "I knew at the time that changing my vote at the 11th hour may have been tantamount to political suicide. . . . (But) the vote would resolve itself into one simple question: Was my political future more important than the agenda that the President had laid out for America?"

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Political opponents, not surprisingly, view her choice in less heroic terms.

"If you want someone who's gonna lie to you, reelect Marjorie," said Frank Bartle, GOP chairman of Pennsylvania's Montgomery County, most of which is within Margolies-Mezvinsky's 13th Congressional District along the famed Philadelphia Main Line.

The district, which before her election had not sent a Democrat to Congress since 1916, is one of only three in the nation where more people had their taxes raised by the Clinton budget than had them cut.

"She went from having no record to having the worst record you could possibly have in this district," Bartle said.

Ironically, Margolies-Mezvinsky's extreme political vulnerability may actually prove to be her salvation.

Feeling both grateful and guilty about putting a freshman Democrat from a historically Republican district in such a predicament, her supporters have been pulling out their checkbooks.

According to the Federal Election Commission, Margolies-Mezvinsky led the 110 House freshmen in contributions last year, both from individuals and political action committees, and ranked seventh in fund raising for all House members, just behind Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.)

In addition to $520,000 raised in 1993, she has attracted $154,000 in the first quarter of this year, said her campaign manager, Amy Walter. Half of that money also came from PACs, Walter said.

In the interview, Margolies-Mezvinsky defended accepting PAC money despite running as a "reform candidate."

"I was one of 11 Democrats who voted to eliminate PACs, but I have a very difficult district. I have to be very aggressive with fund-raising and will be within the rules," she said.

Walter said contributions came from labor unions, insurance companies, pharmaceutical firms and feminist organizations.

The latter are among her staunchest supporters, not surprising given her backing of abortion rights and greater funding for women's health.

"We just wrote her a $2,500 check," said Peg Yorkin, the Los Angeles activist who chairs the Feminist Majority and who was encountered in a House anteroom as the congresswoman ran in to vote. "I think hers is a very key race."

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Since her fateful budget ballot, Margolies-Mezvinsky has joked that "God protects people who vote at 218," the tiebreaking number in the 435-member House.

On this particular day in May, the fates certainly seem to be conspiring in her favor: A divisive Republican Party primary in her district has just been won by the man she defeated in 1992--Montgomery County Commissioner Jon D. Fox.

Although Margolies-Mezvinsky insisted that she was "not taking anything for granted," political observers said she would have had a far tougher time against Ellen Harley, a moderate, pro-choice Republican, who came in second in the primary.

A perennial candidate for office, Fox is "not particularly dynamic," a Pennsylvania state official said.

That is one comment that would be hard to make about Margolies-Mezvinsky. Indeed, she seems constitutionally unable to do fewer than three things at once.

As a youngster growing up in Philadelphia, she was a star athlete, head cheerleader and honor student who "never sat at her desk to do her homework," her mother, Mildred Margolies, said.

In 1970, at age 28, she was so moved by a story she covered about Korean orphans that she became the first single woman in America to adopt a foreign child. Four years later, she adopted another girl, from Vietnam.

In 1975, she married former Iowa Rep. Edward Mezvinsky, who had four children from a previous marriage. The Mezvinskys had two sons together and are legal guardians for three Vietnamese boys, for a grand total of 11 kids--five of whom still live at home.

Margolies-Mezvinsky, who commutes back to Philadelphia on weekends, acknowledged that the pace of life for herself and many other members of Congress is crazy.

She recounted that after the usual 18-hour day, she literally ran into a plate-glass door when she went back to a reception to retrieve her purse.

Margolies-Mezvinsky downplayed the incident, but Nancy Chasen, her best friend of 20 years and host while in Washington, remembered it graphically.

"I was standing there and watched her walk into that door. I've never seen so much blood in my life. There were buckets of it. But Margie in typical fashion said, 'I'll drive to the hospital.'

"This is a quality she gets from her (late) dad of always saying, 'It's no problem. I'm bleeding to death but don't let me bother you.'

"She has really remarkable energy," Chasen continued. "The key to her personality is that she doesn't get dragged down by irrelevant activities like whether the shirts are folded in the drawer. She often says, 'If it doesn't matter in 100 years, it doesn't matter.' If you apply that rule, you have a lot left to apply to other things."

Chasen said her friend had "really matured" in her job this year after climbing the typical freshman's "steep learning curve."

Apart from her headline-grabbing budget vote, a Hill staffer said Margolies-Mezvinsky had not been "tremendously active on the floor" of the House. "She doesn't speak a lot. She tends not to be the first one out to vote."

"She's more show pony than workhorse," a former congressional staffer said. "But then I can't say there are 434 great congressmen and then there's Marjorie. She's probably in the top 50%."

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Another staffer attributed some criticism to envy at Margolies-Mezvinsky's ability to attract publicity.

"She has been a TV persona and knows how to phrase things quickly and in a way people can understand," said Steven Goldstein, a lawyer on the House subcommittee on criminal justice.

Margolies-Mezvinsky worked hard on the recently passed bill banning intimidation of women seeking access to abortion clinics and "gave some of the most impassioned speeches," Goldstein said.

"I'm wild about her. A lot of people around Capitol Hill are pulling for her to win and would be heartbroken if she loses."

That group appeared to include a woman attendant at the House ladies' lounge, who said as the congresswoman walked in: "I'm so happy about your primary."

Standing still for a moment in the lounge, Margolies-Mezvinsky wryly pointed to a plaque on the wall noting that the room--chosen for the women by the House male leadership--was the one in which former President John Quincy Adams died.

"He died on this couch," she said as she sat briefly on the peach satin settee to be photographed. "At least it's been re-covered."

Besides so-called women's issues, Margolies-Mezvinsky said she was working to help produce a rational compromise on health care and has introduced bills to link cost-of-living increases for Social Security to one's means and to raise the retirement age to 70 by the year 2012.

And if the voters decide to end her congressional career just as she's getting the hang of it?

"I have another life," she said. "I've never had problems figuring out what I was going to do. Win or lose, I've won. It's been an extraordinary experience."

As for the eggs, she took them home on the train to Philadelphia.

Like the unflappable Margolies-Mezvinsky, "they arrived uncrushed," she said.

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