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Ann Wagner grasps first rung of House GOP leadership ladder

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 15, 2012 - WASHINGTON – She has hit the ground running on the slippery political turf of Capitol Hill, but U.S. Rep.-elect Ann Wagner is promising to keep her feet firmly planted in her new congressional district in the St. Louis area.

Chosen by the 34 newly elected GOP House members this week as their “freshman representative” at the GOP House leadership table, Wagner says she will “make sure their concerns, ideas and issues are heard and respected” by Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other Republican leaders.

“I was at my first leadership meeting this morning, and it was quite an honor and quite humbling,” Wagner, a Republican from Ballwin, said in an interview Thursday.

But Wagner – a former U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, chair of Missouri’s GOP, co-chair of the Republican National Committee and chair of Roy Blunt's successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2010 -- told the Beacon that “my role is to represent the district, and that’s first and foremost.”

To that end, Wagner sat through days of House briefings this week about rules, personnel, ethics – she's loaded “with paper and binders and notes” – and will return the week after Thanksgiving to take part in a lottery to determine her new office and to attend issues briefings.

At the beginning of January, she will replace U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Wildwood, who gave up his House seat to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate. While Wagner won the House seat with 60 percent of the vote, Akin managed only 39 percent of the statewide vote against U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and a third-party candidate.

It’s no secret that Wager and Akin aren’t close, and she said she hasn’t talked with him since the election. “We’ve reached out and I’m sure I’ll hear from him in due course,” said Wagner, adding that she is willing to listen “whenever Congressman Akin is ready to sit down and to talk about everything from transition to things that I can learn” about Congress.

Wagner aims to be strong voice for St. Louis area

Now, more than ever, the St. Louis area needs strong representation in the House, Wagner says, adding that she aims to help provide it.

Because of the redistricting that eliminated the old 3rd congressional district (represented by outgoing U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis), the Missouri side of the St. Louis area will be represented by only two House members – Wagner and U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis – in the new Congress.

“The district needs a strong voice, somebody who’s going to be involved in the community, in the business sector,” Wagner said, adding that voters sent the message their their top concerns were jobs and the economy. People “want a limited government. They want solutions; they’re tired of the paralysis in Congress.”

Even though Wagner, 50, will start at the bottom rung of House seniority, she said she intends to make her mark on behalf of the region.

“I’m a doer. I’ve got a lot of energy. I’m passionate about this district and I’m going to work real hard to represent it on a daily basis,” she said.

“I’m not moving to Washington. I plan to stay close to the people and to the district.” Her main residence will remain in Ballwin, she said, although she is likely to rent a small apartment near the Capitol.

Wagner joins two other GOP women from Missouri in the House: U.S. Reps. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, whose district is south of Wagner’s district to the border with Arkansas; and Vicky Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, whose district stretches across a wide swath of west-central and mid-Missouri.

Emerson, the dean of Missouri's congressional delegation, will invite Wagner to its monthly meetings to work on issues important to the state. And Wagner says she realizes that – despite their differences in ideology – she will need to work on occasion with the liberal Clay on regional issues.

“As someone who’s been involved in politics and public service for a number of years, I know Congressman Clay quite well and I look forward to a strong working relationship on behalf of our region,” she said.

Ties with House GOP leaders

Wagner’s election this week as the GOP freshman representative in House leadership was hardly an accident. To advance on Capitol Hill, lawmakers must cultivate party leaders, help raise funds or campaign for other candidates, and show an early interest in leadership.

As a former RNC co-chair – who ran unsuccessfully for the chairmanship in 2010 – Wagner is well known in national Republican circles. She has cultivated  Boehner, who appeared at a campaign event for her in August and helped arrange for her to deliver the televised “weekly Republican address” Oct. 27.

At this week’s GOP leadership session, Wagner seconded the nomination of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and she was “very pleased” to support Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., to be the new chairwoman of the Republican conference. “She was very helpful to me during my race and she’s a tremendous leader and role model,” Wagner said.

As a “team player,” with years of fundraising experience, Wagner said she “helped a number in our freshman class in their general elections, and also a good number of other [GOP House members] in their races. So I’ll be pleased to continue doing that.”

After laying the groundwork, the 34 newly elected GOP House members (there may be one or two more, depending on ongoing recounts) chose Wagner as their representative. “I’m pleased that I was chosen by this group of leaders to represent them,” said Wagner, who will attend weekly GOP leadership meetings.

While the Republican freshmen include only three women, Wagner said, “It’s a diverse group of leaders who have really navigated a difficult election cycle for our party . . . farmers and small businessmen and -women, lawyers, legislators, mothers, fathers and grandparents.”

Two years ago, voters gave U.S. House control to the Republicans when they sent 87 new GOP members – including 75 that had received backing from tea party groups – to Washington. This year’s incoming class is much smaller, but Republicans – while losing a few seats – retained their House majority.

“We do have a majority,” Wagner said, “but we’re here to work with the president” to find compromise solutions on key issues. “We’ve held our finger in the dike on so many issues for so long. It’s time for us to come together and find solutions that are going to grow jobs.”

Wagner says the campaign gave her a good sense of which issues are most important to residents of her congressional district, led by “jobs and the economy. And the things that come with that: the out-of-control spending, the debt, concerns about our energy security and health care.”

At the end of the day, Wagner said, people “want certainty . . . We need to create an environment that gets government out of the way and off the backs of hard-working people who are trying to make a living.”

While she will start in a lower-rung leadership position on Capitol Hill, Wagner said “I will be working in Washington, but I will never be of Washington. I’m of Ballwin and Arnold and Oakville and Affton and so many other places that make up the 2nd congressional district.”

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