Fighting the Good Fight

Fueled by an Irish temper and 20 years of congressional accomplishments, Rep. Jim Moran forges ahead

Fueled by an Irish temper and 20 years of congressional accomplishments, Rep. Jim Moran forges ahead

By Helen Mondloch

Photograph by Seth Freeman
Photograph by Seth Freeman

Rep. Jim Moran is standing on a street corner in Old Town Alexandria, feeding a parking meter while exchanging one-liners with CNN comedian-correspondent Pete Dominick. The democratic congressman from Virginia’s eighth district is starring in a segment spotlighting the behind-the-scenes life of America’s lawmakers.

“I was mayor here for a number of years,” Moran casually reflects.

“What’s a cooler job, mayor of Alexandria, or congressman of your district?” asks Dominick.

“Mayor was cooler,” Moran shoots back. “I was single then, too,” he adds.

Moran reminisces about the time he was “fixed up” on a blind date here with actress Morgan Fairchild. The local press gave him grief, he recalls, for a snapshot in which he appeared fixated on Fairchild’s famously alluring figure.

This is far from the first time the “very colorful congressman,” as Dominick refers to Moran, has demonstrated his penchant for laughing at himself. Moran seems quite willing, in fact, to indulge the media’s fancy for his more visceral inclinations.

Take, for instance, his appearance on a 2009 episode of “The Colbert Report” featuring a replay of an interview that had aired a couple years earlier. Stephen Colbert, the feisty faux-news anchor, badgers Moran for allegedly having an “Irish temper.” He calls the congressman names, invokes rumors of his boxing days, tries hard to pick a fight. A smug-faced Moran calmly resists the provocations, insisting he’s a “gentle guy,” before suddenly launching a right hook to Colbert’s jaw. The audience explodes in laughter while Colbert bounces back with an amicable handshake.

As a congressman serving his 10th term, Moran, 65, is well known for waging a tough fight for the causes he espouses with utmost seriousness: regional issues, especially Northern Virginia’s traffic and environmental challenges, as well as matters that loom large on the national scene, such as the battle for health-care reform, two wars he would like to see terminated, and fiscal and social policies that are both fair and affordable. Not least on his wish list is a nation that lives up to its principles and, in doing so, wins the struggle for hearts and minds—beginning with its own.

Right at Home
At the Arlington County home that Moran shares with LuAnn Bennett, president and owner of Bennett Group real estate company and his wife of six years, the setting seems suitable enough for a legislator whose biggest fans include conservation groups and the U.S. Humane Society.

The one-level house sits on a dramatic height overlooking the Potomac River. Floor-to-ceiling windows, with soaring glass overhead, make the living room feel like a greenhouse. The sparse decor bespeaks a love for simplicity. Just outside is a small pond where, Bennett says, the congressman makes a stop every morning to feed the fish. He also feeds the birds. Like the shaggy dog that jumps on the coach to sit by his side, his outdoor pets are precious to him. Their presence affirms his ongoing crusade to safeguard the environment, including recent efforts to purge the Potomac of toxic chemicals which, he says, have had the alarming effect of spawning fish with both male and female reproductive organs. Lately, the privilege of combining what he calls his “avocation”—his devotion to nature—with his professional duties has taken a step up: As newly named chair of the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee (part of the powerful Appropriations Committee, on which he has long served as a senior member), Moran oversees the EPA, National Park Service and the Forest Service, among other agencies.

Even the less idyllic features surrounding this home—like the traffic zooming along Glebe Road down below, and the helicopters that occasionally drown out the congressman’s sentence while cruising at close altitudes up above—bring to mind his hard-fought battles on the Hill. He is well known for working hard to improve his constituents’ quality of life by making their commutes more bearable, and by reducing noise pollution from Reagan National Airport. Perhaps his most notable accomplishment on the local scene is having spearheaded the fight to secure funds for replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

Pathways and Inspirations
Raised in an Irish-Catholic family in Massachusetts during the post-World War II years, Moran, the oldest of seven children, credits his late parents for imparting the values he brings to the House floor. His mother, who became the first female insurance agent in the South while living in South Carolina, was both a bibliophile and a nature enthusiast. She could name all the trees, flowers and insects, he recalls. His dad was a professional football player who played for the Redskins when the team was based in Boston, and later a coach who also mentored juvenile delinquents. “He was tough and courageous, and people listened to him,” says Moran.

Both parents inspired Moran’s work ethic and passion for public service. Like his four brothers, Moran attended college on a football scholarship. Since their father never earned more than $12,000 a year, they never could have attended otherwise, he notes. Moran played lineman at Holy Cross University, where he majored in economics, before going on to get his master’s in public policy at the University of Pittsburgh.

After graduating Moran became a stockbroker in New York before moving to the Washington area to enlist in the federal government, eventually becoming a budget analyst. He later served one term as Alexandria’s vice-mayor and two terms as mayor, then won his first election to Congress in 1990. In the midst of his political rise he also married and became a family man. Today he has four grown children, including 18-year-old Dorothy, whose battle with cancer starting at age 3 was reported extensively in both the local and national media. Her illness would become the most harrowing crucible of Moran’s life—and his hardest-fought victory. The experience would strengthen his determination to help bring reform to a fractured health-care system.

Working Overtime
At an age when many Americans are enjoying the dawn of their retirement years, Moran begins his workday by 7 a.m. and often does not get home until past 10 at night. “I don’t think people realize how hard their representatives work,” remarks Bennett. Her husband’s day planner is filled with House sessions, media appearances and endless meetings—committee, caucus, constituency and more. On Monday evenings he heads over to George Mason University to co-teach a class in political science with former Rep. Tom Davis.

Then there are the myriad local events that Moran likes to support. The tall man with silver hair is easy to spot as he moves through a crowd, smiling and shaking hands. About a dozen times a year, he dons a tuxedo and his comedic persona to help raise funds for what he calls his “favorite non-profits”—like New Hope Housing, an organization that combats homelessness in his district. At annual gala events, Moran serves as a lively auctioneer—one who is not above cajoling and browbeating his audience for higher bids.

Getting Fired Up
When it comes to arguing the issues, Moran is transformed. Watch him deliberate on the House floor, or on the inset screen of cable news, and his Irish eyes are no longer smiling—but large, focused, intense. His hands slice the air as he delivers an artful blend of logical and emotional appeals, laced in a thick Massachusetts accent, with just the right amount of drama and conviction. To listen to Moran—whether you’re with him or against him—is to get fired up over the issue at hand.

Take, for instance, his impassioned statements on MSNBC’s “Ed Shultz Show” about a week after the passage of the health-care law. In the wake of threats and vitriol targeting Democrats, Moran decried the Republican leadership’s “tacit consent” of the hate speech pervading media outlets like Fox News, which, he charged, “have done very well by appealing to people’s basest emotions.” He called on figureheads like John McCain and Mitt Romney to take a stand. Asked if he believes the leadership has a responsibility to do so, Moran declared, “Of course they do! This is our country, and it’s their country, too. Some Republican leader needs to stand up and defend their country and the democratic process that elected Barack Obama.”

In a similar sense, Moran would like to see an adjustment in the national attitude toward government, whose fall from grace began, he believes, when President Reagan deemed it “the cause of all your problems.” He bemoans the fact that even U.S. Census workers—members of what he calls “the finest civil service in the world”—this year became the brunt of anti-government hostility. Moran counters the cynicism with a firm conviction that drives him through his long workdays: “I firmly believe government can improve the quality of people’s lives.”

The congressman is equally passionate about the issues igniting the firestorm. On health care, Moran’s push for a comprehensive overhaul of the system (he had strongly advocated for the public option) was driven by egalitarian sensibilities, the economic strain imposed by the status quo and, not least of all, his encounter with a system that nearly jeopardized the life of his youngest child, Dorothy, when she was just a toddler. In the summer of 1994, Dorothy endured several months of fever, vomiting and headaches that grew so severe, she screamed when her father tried to shampoo her hair. Doctors repeatedly diagnosed her illness as the flu. During a culminating visit to the pediatrician’s office, Moran brought in an outside doctor, who urged those caring for the child to administer an MRI. The pediatricians, fearing the impact on their insurance reimbursements, argued against it. When Moran’s insistence prevailed, the results were stunning: Dorothy was immediately airlifted to Children’s National Hospital for emergency surgery to remove a massive malignant brain tumor. Says Moran, “the experience brought home how wrong it is to make life and death decisions on the basis of profit and loss.”

On fiscal policy, Moran was an original sponsor of the balanced budget amendment that produced surpluses in the 1990s but maintains that the Bush tax cuts should have been accompanied by equal spending reductions. When last year’s budget proposal was unveiled, Moran’s speech on the House floor conveyed the heart of his political soul: “This is the most honest, fair and visionary budget we have seen in eight years,” he said. Noting the tax increase on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, he declared that those who had amassed the greatest wealth “should pay for the cost of the military that defends that wealth, for the cost of the rails and roads that transport that wealth, and the cost of educating the work force that produces that wealth.”

Regarding Iraq, Moran has called the war “the worst military fiasco in American history”—one that he opposed from day one. And while he stands in agreement with President Obama on most issues, he opposed the surge in Afghanistan and still calls that war “unwinnable”—a view he says was corroborated by a March trip to that nation. (Moran also opposed the president’s now-defunct plan to expand off-shore drilling near the coast of Virginia, and did so even before the April disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.)

Moran’s remarks on Middle East policy have at times sparked anger in those who, he contends, are quick to equate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. The charge of bigotry troubles him. He points out that his oldest daughter converted to Judaism before marrying a Jewish man, and that his step-sons, like several members of his staff, are likewise Jewish. As mayor of Alexandria, Moran instituted the nation’s first civic commemoration of the Holocaust. “There is no person less anti-Semitic than Jim,” insists his wife.

Nationally, Moran has been poised at the forefront of many other contentious battles—like the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, equal pay for women and gun laws aimed at preventing another tragedy like the massacre at Virginia Tech. He maintains that both foreign and domestic policy will prove most effective “if we are a nation that learns from our mistakes, and if we remain true to our principles.”

Closer to home, Moran believes that Virginia’s Republican leadership—Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in particular—“are, because of their extremism, the best thing that could have happened to Virginia Democrats in the long run.” He nods in agreement when his wife praises his “well-informed” constituency.

Breaking Away
With so many causes to champion, how does the congressman get away from it all?

He enjoys quiet dinners in Old Town and at Tysons’ Da Domenico, where he and Bennett had their first date. Before undergoing double-knee replacement surgery last winter, he loved running along the C&O Canal and the George Washington Parkway. Now he hikes, taking time to appreciate the natural wonders he works so hard to preserve. His monthly book club provides a reprieve from the scores of official documents and news magazines he reads otherwise. And at the end of every busy day, he and his wife put their feet up and tune in to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” for a dose of political lampooning—not surprising for a politician who, while fighting the good fight, is willing to pause for a hearty laugh at himself.


(August 2010)