early and often

Nan Hayworth: The Tea Party’s Woman in New York

If you were hoping that the nightmarish fight over the debt-ceiling brouhaha might recede into the distance, after a month there’s already evidence that its politics can be adapted to nearly any situation. Like a natural disaster, for instance. Maybe Michele Bachmann was joking when she made a grabby, outlandish statement implying that God was punishing Americans for failing to cut the debt, but when Eric Cantor said last week that the federal government needed to offset any hurricane-relief spending with budget cuts, he definitely wasn’t kidding. Neither is Congresswoman Nan Hayworth, a freshman Republican who made a name for herself during the debt-ceiling debate and serves a Hudson Valley/Westchester district that was hit hard by the storm. Yesterday, echoing Cantor, Hayworth seized the opportunity to make it crystal-clear that her fiscal conservative bona fides are as strong as they come, telling a local paper that “We’re facing a natural disaster in the middle of an economic disaster. The federal government has to balance its budget the way our families do.”

Hayworth’s opponent in the traditionally moderate 19th District next year, Richard Becker, quickly sought to tie her to the tea party and the hostage-taking tactics of the debt ceiling. But while Hayworth might look the part — she’s a member of the Hudson Valley Patriots and she wears Palin-red pumps — and sound like one of the bombastic female tea-party-affiliated GOP politicians currently having a (long) moment, there are more than a few very New York differences between her and someone like Bachmann.

For a start, Hayworth petitioned President Obama for more disaster-relief funds for the area. And when I met her in Battery Park for a mid-morning chat not long after the final debt-ceiling vote last month, Hayworth was careful to emphasize that she was one of those who compromised at the end of the summer-long debacle. “The tenor of the comments as we got closer and closer to August got dominated by ‘Wouldja please get this over with’ and not let us go into default,” she says, admiring the job Boehner did of “threading the needle.” And then there are her “socially inclusive” (as she prefers to call her more liberal positions) stances on a woman’s right to choose and federal environmental regulation and her willingness to use fancy words: “I’ve always been sort of sui generis,” she told me smoothly.* Bachmann’s July Yiddish gaffe was a source of much amusement: “Choots-pah!” Hayworth cracked up. “What did I really think of that? Oy givaltz. She doesn’t know from Yiddish!” Asked about Bachmann’s chances, Hayworth widened her purple-lidded eyes and delicately, slowly said: “She’s not my candidate right now.”

Had she run in any other election but 2010, Hayworth might have been tagged as a fairly traditional wealthy Republican rather than an outsider upstart. Her husband, who runs the Mount Kisco Medical Group and sits on a number of national boards, is worth between $9.5 million and $23.3 million. She partially decided to make her run at family friend Ari Fleischer’s urging, and seems to have had an easier entrée than many newbies, perhaps thanks to some of her social connections; she wound up on the Financial Services Committee, unusual for a new congressman. The tea party, she told me, is “a convenient trope for the press.”

Hayworth has quickly learned to dress the part of a conservative politician: The morning we talked, the city was sweltering, but she was in full regalia: knotted bright scarf, prominent pins, dark blazer, nude pantyhose. Her shiny red pumps — Stuart Weitzman, obtained from zappos.com, she confided readily — looked like a slightly more sedate version of the Naughty Monkey peep-toes Sarah Palin famously wore onstage at the 2008 RNC. The semiotics of Republican fashion is a topic to which the former ophthalmologist has given some thought since entering politics in 2010 — “I never wore red shoes before in my life,” she told me.

Hayworth, 51, might be getting shoe tips from Palin’s wardrobe, but little else about her self-presentation recalls the aggressively folksy former vice-presidential candidate, despite the fact that in 2010, she was often grouped in the press — if not by Palin — with the pack of Palin-inspired Mama Grizzlies who had no previous political experience. (David Frum dubbed Hayworth, educated at Princeton and Weill Cornell Medical College, the “Ivy League Tea Partier.”) Or maybe she just knows how to play to her audience, whether Goldman Sachs executive with a checkbook or magazine reporter with a notebook: Hayworth volunteered that she’s been reading New York for 30 years, and her favorite directors include Woody Allen and Christopher Guest. She was slower to cite the cultural totems she shares with her conservative allies. “I like going to rifle and pistol clubs and joining them in target shooting.” Long pause. “I also share the same respect for individual initiative and love of family,” she finally comes up with.

So whose candidate is Hayworth? Her wealthy district is home to plenty of finance types, and she got a fair amount of Wall Street cash in her 2010 election, as did many tea partiers. Yet she’s not overly religious and she’s unafraid to say she believes in climate change. After strongly speaking out against Dodd-Frank, even more money has flowed her way from entities like Goldman Sachs; Wall Street might be scared away by some of the turns the tea party has taken, but someone like Hayworth is what they signed up for. Thanks in part to that cash, she’s well positioned financially to face Becker’s challenges. The politics of the debt ceiling might have left many with an acrid aftertaste, but it’s clear that for Hayworth and others, they provided a useful template.

*An earlier version of this post implied that sui generis is a French phrase.

Nan Hayworth: The Tea Party’s Woman in New York