The Rancher Brokering the Senate’s Compromise on Women
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s Ivanka Trump’s Senate point person.
When colleagues tell Deb Fischer they’d love to visit her ranch sometime, she is skeptical. Sure, the Nebraska Sand Hills appear lovely and bucolic, but Fischer tells those people: “You should come out in January, when it’s 10 below zero, and chop ice with our kids.” That’s their morning ritual, to break the frozen top layer of the ranch’s water tanks, so the cattle can drink.
Honestly? Fischer has never done the numbing labor herself, she admits. The deep freeze she’s trying to crack is more difficult: gender politics in the United States Senate. The poised 66-year-old delayed her own political career for motherhood and is now trying to make her name as the conservative voice shouting for family-friendly policies on the Hill. The tough-mom vibe is all part of the story.
Fischer, née Strobel, grew up in Lincoln, the daughter of a schoolteacher and an engineer who later became director of the state roads department. In 1972, before finishing college, she married Bruce Fischer, who moved her out to his family’s massive ranch, 300 miles to the northwest. It was gorgeous but lonely; Fischer tended a garden and a brood of three sons. A retiring senator asked her to run for office while the boys were in school, but she declined, instead serving on the school board, where she worked on distance-learning programs for rural kids. Once her own were grown, she ran for state senate in 2004, winning her first race by 128 votes to represent a sparsely populated district the size of New Jersey.
She cites the need for relief for an hourly worker…but never neglects business owners’ concerns.
In Lincoln’s unicameral legislature, Fischer became known as tough, conservative and a good listener. Then-speaker Mike Flood says Fischer’s nickname was “The General,” for her acuity at whipping votes. She willed through a law to earmark a quarter-cent of the state sales tax for new road construction, a feat Flood considered unlikely at first.
Term-limited out of the legislature, Fischer ran for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2012 as an underdog in a Republican primary against two statewide officeholders. The men spent most of their time attacking each other, and Fischer scored a narrow win thanks in part to an avalanche of outside money pounding establishment favorite Attorney General Jon Bruning — and an endorsement from Sarah Palin. In the general election, Democratic former U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey attacked Fischer for ranch-related controversies: a nasty property dispute with a neighbor and using a federal program for the Fischer cattle to graze on federal land for low rates. She won by 16 percentage points.
So far, Fischer lacks a signature achievement in the gridlocked Senate, but she now finds herself at the front lines of the “war on women.” Nationwide, women voted for Hillary Clinton last year by a 12-point margin, according to national exit polls. Donald Trump’s piggish leaked Access Hollywood tape, in which he boasted of committing sexual assault, didn’t help. Fischer denounced Trump afterward and said he should quit the race, but days later reversed course and said she would still vote for him. Bottom line: “There was no way that I could support Hillary Clinton,” she says. And now? “I think he’s doing a great job.” She cites his demolition of environmental regulations loathed by farmers and ranchers on stream pollution, and she favors Trump’s SCOTUS pick, Neil Gorsuch.
Paul Landow, a University of Nebraska Omaha political scientist and veteran of Democratic politics, says the flip-flop earned Fischer sharp backlash. Her fellow Nebraska Republican senator, Ben Sasse, was a leader of the “Never Trump” brigade and still is suffering among the GOP base. But Landow says Fischer doesn’t need to worry about her reelection race next year.
Fischer says the Senate itself nurses scars from 2016. The 21 female senators are clubby. “We don’t pick at each other,” Fischer tells OZY in her Washington office, where visitors are greeted by a goldendoodle puppy. While she laments how cross-party relationships have deteriorated even over her single term, Fischer has worked closely with Sen. Angus King of Maine, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, to push a tax credit to businesses that give at least two weeks of family leave to their employees. Fischer is also promoting a bill that would prevent companies from retaliating against employees who discuss their salaries to determine whether the company is doling out “equal pay for equal work.”
Democrats would prefer something stronger, such as 12 weeks of mandatory paid leave or allowing women to sue for punitive damages for wage discrimination. Trump proposed a six-week maternity leave mandate during the campaign. King and Fischer argue a half-measure beats nothing — and with Republicans running the show, mandates are out. But activist groups say Fischer’s bills are so narrow as to be almost meaningless. They seem “designed to score political points without actually making a material difference in the lives of most working women,” says Vivien Labaton, cofounder of Make It Work Action. “And by that calculus, it’s not worth it.”
While Ivanka Trump’s big Republican National Convention speech cribbed Democratic talking points about the gender pay gap, Fischer’s rhetoric melds her tough-mom aesthetic with equal-opportunity empathy. She cites the need for relief for an hourly worker who “has to take off to take their kid to the doctor or make sure that their mother’s OK,” but never neglects business owners’ concerns. “These are mom-and-pops that if we mandate any kind of paid family leave, they might have to let an employee go,” she says. Her strategy, for now: Keep putting pressure on her fellow senators by speaking out in public and reminding them that this steely ranch mom just might provide the only way to break the ice.