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First Black Republican Congresswoman Wants To Be Known For More


When the 114th Congress convenes next week, one of the new members attracting attention will be Mia Love from Utah. She'll become the first black Republican woman to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Terry Gildea of member station KUER reports that Congresswoman Love wants to make her constituents - not her race - the focus of her work.

TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: When voters elected Mia Love to Congress in November, her life quickly got more complicated. Love has been so busy that I got only a few minutes to talk with her at a restaurant north of Provo during the holidays. She says her victory suddenly became real to her a few weeks ago when she was in Washington for freshman orientation.

REPRESENTATIVE-ELECT MIA LOVE: It finally sunk in in the rotunda in the Capitol. I saw this big statue of Brigham Young and really realized that Utah was a part of this. And then I thought to myself, a lot of these people think that this is their home, that they've arrived. But this is not their house. This is the house of the people.

GILDEA: Becoming the first black Republican woman to serve in the House is a milestone Love acknowledged in her victory speech, but she shied away from talking about race since her election.

LOVE: A lot of people tried to bring me into this, and I said, don't label me. First and foremost, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a Utahan and I'm an American. That's who I am, and these are the things that I have to offer. And I think that that resonated, and that's why I was elected.

GILDEA: Republican leadership tapped Love for a position on the House Financial Services Committee, but that wasn't her first choice.

TIM CHAMBLESS: She had wanted the Energy and Commerce Committee assignment, which Congressman Jim Matheson had held for over a decade. That was not given to her.

GILDEA: Tim Chambless is a professor with the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. He says the state's fourth district was drawn to have a 62 percent Republican advantage. But Love only got 50 percent of the vote, beating her Democratic opponent Doug Owens by only three percentage points.

CHAMBLESS: One would have expected, in a year of a Republican wave, in which a Republican congressman won easily in Utah's first, second and third congressional districts, that she, too, would have won overwhelmingly, rather than by a margin of 50 to 47.

CRAIG JANIS: Well, I started as a pretty staunch Republican, and living in Utah moved me into the Democrat camp. You know, in other states, I might actually be Republican.

GILDEA: Craig Janis lives in the fourth district and supported Love's opponent. He owns a small business designing websites and mobile apps. He says his vote came down to his ability to get health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

JANIS: Mia has come out and said that that's something that she does not support.

GILDEA: Janis is one of the founding members of the LDS Democratic caucus, but he has high hopes for Love's first term, even though he didn't support her.

JANIS: Mia has a unique opportunity. As a black woman, as an LDS woman and as a Republican, she's in a position that nobody's ever been in before. If, after two years, she's stood up for something, if she's reflected the moderate politics of the fourth, then I would happily vote for her.

GILDEA: Back at lunch with the congresswoman elect, Love says each legislative decision she faces will be made with her constituents in mind.

LOVE: I have to ask myself - is it affordable? Is it sustainable? Is it my job? And who am I making this decision for?

GILDEA: Love says she plans to avoid the national spotlight in order to properly represent her district. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea, in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gildea comes to KUER from San Antonio where he spent four years as a reporter and host at Texas Public Radio. While at KSTX, he created, produced and hosted the station's first local talk show, The Source. He covered San Antonio's military community for the station and for NPR's Impact of War Project. Terry's features on wounded warriors, families on the home front and veterans navigating life after war have aired on Morning Edition, Weekend Edition and All Things Considered. His half-hour radio documentary exploring the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical Center was honored by the Houston Press Club and the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters. Prior to his position in San Antonio, Terry covered Congress for two years with Capitol News Connection and Public Radio International . He holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Washington and a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Terry enjoys spending time with his wife and two young sons, fixing bicycles and rooting for his hometown Seattle Mariners.