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Working Girl

The keynoter's Staten Island roots

The Staten Island Advance, daily diary of New York City's "forgotten" white-ethnic borough, called Borough President Guy Molinari at home on July 15 with the news that his daughter would keynote the Republican National Convention. "What? Really? And here I thought I was going to be staying home from the convention to baby-sit," he said, with his characteristic familial/political spin. If Representative Susan Molinari doesn't take her 3-month-old daughter with her to the convention podium on August 11, it will be just about the only public space the newest Molinari hasn't appeared. When cameras converged on Mom's office after her keynoting role was announced, baby Susan Ruby was right there, over her heart.

Mixing family loyalty and political teamwork is the Molinari way, and if they conflict, politics gets the edge. This time, the family's women are starring (even though Molinari's husband, Representative Bill Paxon, is one of Newt Gingrich's top operatives), and her working-mom script has cowed even Beltway feminists into glossing over her votes to cut welfare and education. "I often work till 11 at night and need my hug-and-kiss quotient," she giggled last month on cnbc's "Equal Time" as Mary Matalin and Margaret Carlson teased her about how often she Takes Her Daughter to Work.

"What about when you go to vote?" asked the liberal Carlson, doing her best to sound intrepid.

"We have someone who comes in with her every day," said Molinari, turning to the camera and assuring the nation, with mock, sing-song propriety, "We don't ask our paid congressional staff to do that kind of thing. I want to make that clear." After the mommy-talk, she rattles on with impunity about "liberal media bias," "completing the Republican revolution" and Bill Clinton's broken campaign promises.

Money couldn't buy Republicans this winning a combination of cuteness and toughness. But then it wasn't needed. Molinari's grandfather was a New York assemblyman in the 1940s. Guy, who succeeded him, roomed with Senator Al D'Amato's brother Armand in Albany before going to Congress, and in 1981 got Susan, 23, a job with the Republican Governors Association. After five years in the New York City Council, she succeeded her father in Congress in 1990, representing Staten Island and a few white-ethnic enclaves in Brooklyn. In 1992, she divorced her first husband, a local boy whose business troubles had given her opponents campaign ammunition.

Again, politics got the edge: in 1994, she married into the House leadership (Paxon heads the National Republican Congressional Committee), sharing what she called "our second honeymoon" while campaigning with him for eighty-four House candidates in thirty-six states. Gingrich then made her vice-chair of the House Republican Conference, the leadership's youngest woman ever, an honor not lost on the GOP's oldest-ever presidential nominee. Molinari's ability to mix family and political teamwork began a decade ago, when the pro-choice daughter and her pro-life Dad "agreed to disagree." And so it is now with her and Bob Dole, who she says she'll praise as "a wonderful man" in San Diego.

Molinari's ethnic charm and feminine ambition recall Tess, Melanie Griffith's character in the 1988 film Working Girl. A secretary, Tess rides the Staten Island Ferry to a Manhattan brokerage house where she works for yuppies from hell. Bathed in affection by her girlfriend-commuters, who also smother her aspirations—"What choo want wit a speech class?" one asks her. "Yoo tawk foyne!"—Tess endures horny arbitrageurs and a jet-setting boss who steals her bright investment idea. Tess outsmarts them all and makes off with hotshot competitor Harrison Ford. Score one for Staten Island, where revenge is a big deal. (In 1993, with Molinari's support, it voted to secede from New York City, in a non-binding resolution.)

But, while Molinari seems like Tess, she takes the shuttle from LaGuardia to Washington, not the boat to Manhattan, notes former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, who once lived on Staten Island, wrote for the Advance and brought the Working Girl analogy to my attention. And, while Tess soared only by breaking Staten Island's cocoon and struggling alone, Molinari is buoyed by the family loyalty of both clan and constituents, as well as by her new teamwork with national Republican leaders.

Her heavily Italian- and Irish-American district, New York's 13th, includes lots of Archie and Edith Bunkers, refugees from "changing" neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx who have made enough money to drop their old lunch-pail liberalism. Yet Staten Island is home to more civil servants—including more city police officers and firefighters—than any other county in the United States. This heavily unionized yet socially parochial electorate makes for a local Republican politics riddled with contradictions.

On the one hand, Staten Islanders are conservative in the peculiarly prickly manner of New Yorkers who live near both decadent Manhattan and the ravaged inner-city neighborhoods they once called home. They aren't about to have their schools and other services drained by redistribution into the maw their parents fled. On the other hand, the city workers among them want high public wages and benefits. And, racially dyspeptic though they may be, many have banked enough of an older civic culture's nobler passions so that were Colin Powell, who graduated City College before affirmative action, the Republican nominee, he would sweep the island against Clinton. A latent, social Catholicism here prefers conservative, corporatist responsibility to congressional Republicans' mindless laissez-faire.

In Congress, Molinari has negotiated these politics in different ways. At first, she voted with labor and the providers of pork, such as the Navy's short-lived homeport on Staten Island. In 1994, she backed Clinton's crime bill. And there were even strains of a novice feminism: she sponsored a version of the Sexual Assault Prevention Act of 1993 that would admit into cases past evidence against a defendant who'd never been indicted. She also touted studies, since debunked, that claimed girls are shortchanged in schools where they outperform boys.

Since rising to House leadership, Molinari's previously moderate labor, environmental and feminist ratings have plummeted. She turned against the crime bill, angering some of her own blue-uniformed constituents, and voted to cut summer jobs and housing assistance. Still, New York liberals who delight in exposing Molinari as a feminist impostor and faux-moderate opportunist miss the point: the very Devil's bargain Tess felt forced to make is, for Molinari, a win/win dilemma. Tess had to fight hard just to get a chance to choose between settling for Staten Island as a sour, parochial refuge from decrepit urban liberalism and getting recognition in glittering but colder realms. Guy Molinari has given his daughter the keys to the refuge but also a redcarpeted path to wider horizons dominated now by another patriarch, Dole. Out of familial pride, Staten Islanders are letting her have it both ways. She'll go to San Diego and show off the baby, proud Dad in tow. Like Tess, she'll disarm her detractors, and a lot of Americans will think they're watching Working Girl II. Not even Beltway feminists have managed to debunk that script.