The Representative Nita M. Lowey Papers

Inside the newest collection at AJHS.

New archival collections share one commonality besides an array of documents needing organization and description. Each collection holds a story—of a community, an organization, a life. Collections often hold surprises when an archivist opens a box up, but rarely does a first box stun as much as opening the first box of collection materials from former Democratic Congresswoman Nita Lowey: the 2019 Articles of Impeachment regarding former President Trump as well as his response letter dated December 17, 2019 and addressed to California Representative and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi excoriating his first impeachment.

A panic came over me… why was this letter in the box? Was this letter supposed to have gone to Nancy Pelosi? Did each of “The Noble 95” in the H. Res. 498 resolution get a copy of this letter? Was this Trump’s original letter to Pelosi? Did Pelosi give it to Lowey? And ultimately: shock. Why shock? The archival staff had been working onsite on a limited and staggered pandemic schedule when I opened the box on November 1, days before the 2020 election and let’s just say… life was intense between a pandemic, an election, and seeing the former President’s signed letter of rebuttal, which I had read during his first impeachment trial.

The Representative Nita M. Lowey Papers, 1988-2021 (a collection of over fifty bankers boxes) joins the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) as the second collection donated from a Jewish member of Congress, the first being New York Representative Isaac Siegel, who served as a Republican from 1915-1923, and was one of 373-50 House members who voted in favor of entering World War I on April 2, 1917 (a single manuscript box collection). Siegel’s small trove of papers donated by his wife, Annie, after Siegel’s death in 1947, pales in comparison to the depth and breadth of records donated by Congresswoman Lowey. In fact, Lowey’s papers consist of the entirety of her thirty-one year career as Representative of the 20th District (1989-1993), the 18th District (1993-2013), and the 17th District (2013-2021) of New York, covering Westchester and Rockland Counties, and at times, slivers of Queens and the Bronx.

Nita Sue Melnikoff was born in 1937 in the Bronx, New York, not far from Yankee Stadium, the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants. The Melnikoff household kept kosher, and while not Orthodox, she attended Orthodox Hebrew schools in her youth, and would ultimately graduate from the Bronx High School of Science and the first of the Seven Sisters Schools, Mount Holyoke College. (School photo here.) While not a religious school, Mount Holyoke required students to attend church, which was a predicament for Jews in a school with less than a 10% Jewish student body. Melnikoff and a group of Jewish friends gathered to hold Shabbat services, and she would become the president of the Jewish student group. In 1958, she interned with Hubert Humphrey and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in Washington, D.C., where she got her first taste of politics. (1)

After graduating with a degree in political science (Class of ‘59), she worked at the Rubicon and Young advertising agency, quitting to marry Lowey in 1961. Stephen graduated from Harvard in 1958 and Columbia University Law School and worked for three years as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. The Loweys would have three children: Dana, Jacqueline, and Douglas, and the family moved from Queens to the City of Harrison in Westchester. While raising her family, Nita Lowey actively worked in her community and on the PTA, while Stephen left the DA’s office and formed what would eventually become the law firm of Lowey Dannenberg, specializing in securities, antitrust, and consumer protection law.

Lowey’s political career started fifteen years after raising her family, and she put her undergraduate degree in political science to work. Her involvement in New York State Democratic government reaches to 1975 where she worked for ten years as a staff member of the New York Secretary of State for Economic Development and Neighborhood Preservation. For two of those years, former New York State Governor Mario Cuomo was Secretary of State from 1975-1978, and in 1977, Lowey became the primary fundraiser for Cuomo’s run for New York City Mayor that year. While he lost that race, he would eventually become governor in 1982. (2)  In 1985, Lowey became the New York Assistant Secretary of State, leaving that position in 1988 to run for—and win—the office of U.S. Representative in the 100th Congress of the United States of America until her retirement in the 116th Congress. (3)

Lowey ran for the 20th District against the gaffe prone and staunch President Reagan supporter, two-term Republican Representative Joseph DioGuardi. DioGuardi had filled the seat of ten-term Representative Richard Ottinger when he abruptly retired from his seat in 1984, with DioGuardi winning a narrow race to replace him. In the next election, DioGuardi faced former Manhattan Representative Bella Abzug, who had not held political office since 1976 after an unsuccessful race for the Senate. DioGuardi campaigned against Abzug as a political outsider and carpetbagger after she moved from Manhattan to Mount Vernon, but he could not use that argument in his run against Lowey, as she lived in Westchester since the 1960s. Lowey won the seat by a 50%-47% margin, and over the years of her representing the district her seat was relatively safe.

Lowey, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and former president Bill Clinton are friends and Lowey was their representative as well since the Clintons live within Lowey’s former districts. In 2000, Lowey considered pursuing a run from the House of Representatives to the Senate, but once Clinton announced her plans to run for the junior New York State spot, Lowey announced her plan to remain in the House. In 2001, Lowey became the first woman to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Despite her leadership, Democrats did not win the House back in the 2002 election. (4)

In 2018, after Democrats regained the House Majority, Lowey set another milestone: becoming the first woman Chair of the House Appropriations Committee. The Chair position was a challenging time in the heat of tensions between former President Trump and Democratic leaders in both the House and Senate regarding Trump’s Southern border wall, and the thirty-five-day partial shutdown of the government in 2018. In 2020, Lowey, as Appropriations Chair, spearheaded the first two of three bills committed to the relief of the American people during what she called the “most difficult time I can remember as a member of Congress” in an April 13, 2020 interview with C-Span.

In Lowey’s career, she was the primary sponsor of twenty-six bills that were enacted, among them Appropriations bills and joint resolutions, disaster relief, renaming government buildings in Westchester, honoring Thomas Paine, and making grants available for research on breast cancer and environmental connections. In 2017, Lowey introduced H.R. 672 (115th)

Combating European Anti-Semitism Act of 2017. The bill requires the Department of State to include in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom information regarding occurrences of antisemitism in European countries “where there have been particularly significant threats or attacks against Jewish persons or institutions.”(5)

I have had to learn more about the process of Congressional franking (in a nutshell: free mail to constituents sanctioned by Congress). I encountered boxes of mailings that citizens receive, news from your local public servant to you. You may live in a representative’s district, but a representative has many communities within that district to serve and represent, as seen in these targeted community newsletters. The archival lesson learned is always check when there are seemingly multiple copies of the same newsletter. They may look the same at firstglance, but reality may differ.

Lastly, the collection holds numerous newsclippings. For the most part, first processing of newsclippings happens fast, especially when there are a lot of them. The archivist does not expend a lot of time reading them on the first round, but this clipping from The Town Report of May 22, 2009, “Comments from Congress with U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey: Preparing for a Pandemic” caught my eye, particularly since 2020 found us all in the very predicament that former President Obama and Representative Lowey prepared us for after Ebola, Zika, and H1N1. In 2009 after Obama came into office during the Great Recession, she wrote:

“The House version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted earlier this year, included $870 million for pandemic influenza preparedness efforts like antiviral production and vaccine development, but was removed by the Senate. President Obama requested $1.5 billion for pandemic preparedness initiatives in a supplemental appropriations bill currently pending before Congress. With my support, the House of Representatives provided $2 billion this week.  Although it appears we may have dodged a bullet with the current H1N1 influenza strain, the virus could mutate and return with the cold weather in autumn. We must take every precaution to ensure our communities are protected from the next pandemic.”

The small clipping made me remember eleven years ago when I hoped for the best regarding the next big pandemic.

I have not learned the full story of how former President Trump’s 2019 letter ended up with the Lowey collection, but I do know that the Honorable Congresswoman Nita Lowey is indeed one of the “Noble 95,” and a life-long public servant. I look forward to organizing the records of her groundbreaking career.

A list of Lowey’s voting positions can be found at “On the Issues.

 

 

 

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1. Ibid.

2. Stone, Kurt F. The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members. United Kingdom: Scarecrow Press, 2011, pg. 466. (Accessed March 11, 2021 https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/ACTF56SnaykC?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA46...)

3. Former Rep. Nita Lowry Power Brief (Subscription Only) https://www.legistorm.com/person/bio/51491/Nita_Sue_Melnikoff_Lowey.html; Advanced Search for Legislation: Nita Lowry; govtrack.us/congress/bills

4. Lewis, Rebecca C. “Nita Lowey’s career of firsts.” City and State, Oct. 11, 2019 (https://www.cityandstateny.com/articles/politics/news-politics/nita-lowe...)

5. “The report shall include information about the security needs of such Jewish communities, U.S. efforts to partner with European law enforcement agencies and civil society groups, European public awareness initiatives to promote pluralism and tolerance, and efforts by European governments to adopt and apply a working definition of anti-Semitism.” H.R. 672 (115th) Combating European Anti-Semitism Act of 2017 https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr672

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