TRENTON, N.J. | Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican who spent more than two decades in Congress sparring regularly with ideologues within her party, has died. She was 85.
A spokeswoman at Christian Health Care Center in Wyckoff said Roukema died at the nursing home early Wednesday. The cause was not disclosed.
Roukema represented northern New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District from 1981 to 2003. She described herself through the years as a strong fiscal conservative. But on many social issues, she espoused a liberal Republican philosophy long associated with the Northeast.
She regularly broke with her party to vote with Democrats. She supported abortion rights, opposed school vouchers, voted for a 1994 ban on assault weapons, opposed term limits and supported a ban on unrestricted “soft money.”
Her independence ended up costing her a committee chairmanship. But she said she was elected “to speak my mind, not to represent whomever in the Republican leadership or a faction of the Republican Party.”
During the later years of her tenure, she was the longest-serving woman in Congress.
Female lawmakers were enough of a novelty in the early 1980s that female Republicans and Democrats got together in a bipartisan women’s caucus.
“We were considered token women members and we didn’t really have the ear of the leadership,” Roukema said in a 2001 interview. “It’s far different now.”
Born Marge Scafati, she obtained a degree in history and political science at Montclair State University. She taught high school history and English before running for Congress — unsuccessfully in 1978, then successfully in 1980.
Roukema struggled at times as more conservative members of her party from regions outside the Northeast became more powerful on Capitol Hill. After Republicans seized control of the House in 1994, Roukema increasingly found herself assailed from the right.
Roukema maintained through the years that her tax record proved her conservative credentials. She voted against the tax hikes implemented under President Bill Clinton in 1993 and President George H.W. Bush in 1990, and she supported President Ronald Reagan’s tax cut in 1981 and the GOP’s unsuccessful $792 billion tax cut measure in 1999.
GOP leaders spurned Roukema’s 2001 bid to become chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, even though she had seniority on her side. She declared herself “gravely disappointed” by the decision, which she said would invite “a negative perception of the Republican Party.”
She subsequently turned down suggested consolation prizes, including the post of U.S. treasurer.
Roukema announced late in 2001 that she would not run for a 12th term in 2002. “I will miss being a voice for our party of the fiscal conservatives and social moderates,” she said.
She also tried, but failed, to influence the selection of her successor. Republican State Assemblyman Scott Garrett, who had twice mounted primary challenges against her, calling her too liberal, handily won her seat in Congress in fall 2002, and continues in that post today. Roukema had endorsed another candidate in the 2002 GOP primary then declined to endorse either Garrett or his Democratic opponent in the general election.