condensed and edited by Mary Architzel Westbrook
When U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria, a Norfolk Democrat, won her seat in November, she became one of a record number of women elected to Congress. A retired Navy commander who with her husband owns the Mermaid Factory in Norfolk, she was also part of a freshman class with the highest number of veterans in a decade. She sat down with us to discuss her new role – and what it’s like to take office in the midst of a prolonged partial shutdown of the federal government.
What surprised you most about your first few months in office?
It was a very different time to come in, thinking about the fact that we weren’t paying our government workers. I thought that was unconscionable. I immediately asked that they withhold my pay and brought together a group of colleagues to (try to) reopen the government. We obviously wouldn’t have wanted to go through (the shutdown) to get there, but we did a lot of things in the budget negotiation that ended up being positive. (For example) we bought the Coast Guard a new (polar)
icebreaker for the first time in 40 years.
How does your military service inform your new role as a lawmaker?
As a plebe at the Naval Academy, you learn the mission statement, which talks about developing leaders for the highest positions of command, citizenship and government. I always had in the back of my mind a personal expectation to continue to serve in other ways after my time in the military. I really felt, in our current political climate, an obligation to not sit on the sidelines.
What do you see as some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for our region?
About one-quarter of shipbuilding and repair in the country happens right here in Hampton Roads, and workforce development is a big issue. We just do not have enough skilled tradesmen – plumbers, pipe fitters, electricians – to do all the work that needs to be done. Another thing that’s very important is sea level rise and recurrent flooding. We want to be sure that we get at the causes of climate change but also the impacts.
What is your definition of a successful lawmaker?
It’s about being accessible, being engaged – interacting with people in the community in a positive way, hearing their concerns. That’s really the most important thing. … The next step is, how do we translate that (issue) into a legislative priority and get people the resources they need to move forward.