New Congress: From Reliably Liberal Rockstar to Small Government Champion in NY's 19th District

What a difference an election makes. This week, President Obama loses his Democratic Congress as the GOP takes control. That’s the result of 63 local contests, where voters traded out a Democrat for a Republican.

The ideological transition maybe the most pronounced in New York’s 19th Congressional District, which stretches through the Hudson Valley into parts of Westchester County.

There, John Hall, a former 1970's pop star — turned-anti-nuclear activist — turned-Congressman is being replaced by Nan Hayworth, a former eye surgeon who wants to see the health care law repealed and a lot less federal intervention in business.

Rep. Hall was a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a reliable vote for liberal measures. For her part, incoming Congresswoman Hayworth says there’s been too much regulation in Washington. Too much spending, and just too much government, she says.

“We need to wind down federal involvement in the marketplace. The Constitution, again, is a guide," she says.

When she takes office on Wednesday, she says she wants to fix what’s broken, and she approaches it with the certainty of a surgeon.

“That is the surgical mentality. It absolutely is. I want to fix it," she says.

When I visited her in her local office in December, it was quiet — a few staffers were there to answer the occasional phone call or accept holiday popcorn tins. Hayworth whisked in with a burst of energy. Wearing a red jacket, a short gray skirt and red high heels, she’d spent her morning visiting her parents at two different local hospitals.

She speaks in controlled spurts, precisely selecting each word before she lets it out. She claims she didn’t believe she could be a doctor until her would-be husband encouraged her while they were students at Princeton, but her demeanor doesn’t betray an ounce of self-doubt.

“I’m a perfectionist, so being an ophthalmologist, we have responsibility for a fairly small area of the body if you will, so I could really do all I could to optimize those eyes and that visual system for my patients," she recalls about choosing a surgical specialty that she could really master.

That perfectionism also led to a major career shift in 2005. After eight years of medical training and 16 years of private practice, she retired and closed her office. She felt she wasn’t being the best mother she could be to her two teenage sons. “Being one of those doctors who really would drop everything when a patient needed me, because that is what we’re supposed to do as professionals," she recalls. "Wonderful for patients, not so nice for your kids.”

She was a full-time mother for two years while her husband continued to practice medicine. Two years later, she took a job as a vice president with a NYC-based health care advertising firm that’s done campaigns for things like Pfizer’s BenGay patch and Merck’s nasal spray.

Then came the 2008 elections. Obama won the presidency. There were Democratic super-majorities in both the House and Senate. Nan Hayworth didn’t like what she saw. It came up at home. A lot.

“My comments were frequent and vivid," she says. "And my husband in December of 2008 suggested to me that I run for Congress.”

He was joking. But he didn’t tell her that until after she won the election, in which she campaigned on repealing the health care overhaul and scaling back the new financial regulations crafted by Senator Chris Dodd and Congressman Barney Frank.

“There is going to be an impetus to unwind Dodd-Frank," she says now. "The goal of fundamentally trying to assure that consumers are not taken advantage of, especially small investors, those of us who aren’t expert. No question, that's laudable. But the means, again, is the problem. This is an enormously costly bill that will actually reduce opportunities.”

Her position on financial regulation will be key, as she’s landed a spot on the House Financial Services Committee. Here, she says she wants to make it clear that the government will not be doing any more bailing out of banks that take on too much risk.

But she doesn’t think more regulation is the answer either. She says more agency rules restrain the free market without necessarily preventing any of the excesses — pointing to the regulators' failure to catch the Madoff investment scheme. “I don’t expect those inherent defects somehow miraculously to be resolved by conferring more power on regulatory bodies," she notes with some skepticism.

Hayworth knows, of course, that anything she and the Republican caucus pass in the House will have to get through the Democratically-controlled Senate and not get vetoed by President Obama. She knows that means that the various repeals and spending cuts she campaigned on won’t necessarily become law, but neither will measures that only get Democrats' support.

“I don’t want to be merely a contrarian or obstructive at all," she says. "I was hired to get many things done, but hired as well to stop potentially damaging things from being done.”

Do no harm, says the former doctor. And just what that means for the rep from New York’s 19th District will be a radically different diagnosis in this new Congress.