WASHINGTON — Asked to identify the woman she most admires, Sen. Deb Fischer went with another Republican whom Nebraskans sent to Washington: Virginia Smith.
As the first and only Nebraska woman elected to a full term in the House, Smith represented the state's sprawling and heavily agricultural 3rd Congressional District for 16 years. She died in 2006.
“As I reach the end of my first year in the U.S. Senate, I'm working to follow Smith's lead by always staying in close touch with Nebraskans and building strong relationships with my colleagues to advance the interests of Nebraskans here in Washington,” Fischer wrote in a piece for the Washington, D.C.-based publication Politico.
With her election last fall, Fischer became one of a record 20 women now serving in the U.S. Senate.
Although a number of news stories have focused on Capitol Hill's increasing female ranks, Fischer has tended to downplay that gender angle. She points to other parts of her identity, including her background as a rancher and a state lawmaker. But she agreed to write the article for Politico as part of a series of such pieces.
Fischer praised Smith's accomplishments — from becoming high school valedictorian at age 15 to her gutsy and successful campaign for the House. She noted Smith's risky decision to run for Congress in 1974, facing a “packed GOP primary and a well-known Democratic opponent.”
In her own campaign for the Senate, Fischer had to first defeat two more established candidates in the Republican primary and then best former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey in the general election.
Fischer wrote that Smith was adept at making friends wherever she traveled and recalled the time she witnessed the power of her personality firsthand, when Smith made a campaign stop in a restaurant in Valentine.
“I fondly remember her visit with my mother-in-law and me,” Fischer wrote. “It didn't take long before Smith discovered a mutual friend with my mother-in-law.”
Fischer said that the 1970s may have been an age of progress for women but that Washington was an unwelcoming place for female lawmakers, particularly those who leaned to the right on the ideological spectrum.
“The adversity she faced because of her gender, though, was a secondary concern to Smith's focus on how to best serve her constituents,” Fischer wrote. “Instead of making excuses or alienating herself from the 'boys club,' Smith sought to win over her colleagues with her unyielding and distinctive charm.”