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A woman's place: The House 

Meet Blanche Lambert, Arkansas's election night surprise, whose politics are a bit surprising, too.

click to enlarge Blanche Lambert image
  • Blanche Lambert

Don't scream at us for whistling "Pretty Woman" every time we think about Blanche Lambert's surprise win in the Democratic primary race for Congress from the first district.

Lambert, vanquisher of the 24-year incumbent, U.S. Rep. Bill Alexander, started it.

As congressional campaigns go, Lambert's ran on a shoestring. She spent about $75,000 — about three-fourths the amount Alexander shelled out.

But Lambert ran hard, speeding around the 25-county district in a truck equipped with a loudspeaker, just like the old days.

To attract attention, the sound truck played music between political spiels. Lambert's first pick for traveling music was suggested by an uncle. It was "Pretty Woman," the late Roy Orbison's classic.

It took an anonymous call to Lambert's headquarters in her hometown of Helena to remind her that the song might not carry the right message for a young woman seeking to break into the predominantly male congressional men's club — that, in the context, it could suggest sexism or vanity or recall the recent hit movie about a hooker.

"It never occurred to us," Lambert said. "We were just looking for something spunky." The Lambert campaign switched to John Phillip Sousa and she shortly marched to victory with 60 percent of the vote. The outcome surprised even Lambert.

In the early days after her primary victory, success didn't seem to have changed her much. Though she had been interviewed by The Washington Post and other major outlets, she hadn't stopped the fresh talk that helped propel her to victory over the controversy-ridden Alexander.

Lambert's talk has a decidedly liberal cast, raw meat, perhaps, for a right-wing Republican, Terry Hayes, who poses a general election challenge. The months ahead will prove if Lambert can stick with that straight talk, or as with her campaign theme music, decide that voters' perceptions require a change of tune.

Blanche Lambert is one of four children, descendants of a pioneer farm family — "not a big farm," she hastens to point out. Just the same, you don't get more old line than the Lambert family.

Lambert is a seventh-generation descendant of the Rev. Jordan Bennett Lambert, a Presbyterian minister who settled near Holly Grove around 1815 to be a missionary to Indians.

The Indians are long gone, but the Lamberts stayed around, with one Lambert branch moving to the Helena area about three generations back. Her great-grandfather married into the Hornor clan, for whom the township that includes Helena is named.

The Lamberts are planters, but Blanche is is a Helena city girl. Her father commuted 28 miles to the fields each day.

In the fourth grade, Lambert made an important decision with political ramifications, though she scarcely could have known it at the time.

The schools were desegregated. Many whites in Helena fled to private academies. Her parents, Martha and Jordan (pronounced JERdin, in the Southern style), wanted Blanche and her brother Jordan III to stay put. The other Lambert children were out of school by then.

"But they didn't want the decision to be solely theirs," Lambert said. "They always tried to incorporate us in decision making, because they thought it was very important to be aware of consequences and to be very aware of what you're doing."

Blanche and her brother stayed in the public schools. "It reinforced in us the importance of building friendships with all people." In high school, school officials still weren't ready for black and white children to mix at proms. "We had a big May Day festival instead. We looked for alternative ways to be together and I thought we were very productive in that."

(Lambert won some support in the black community in the election, though she didn't cut substantially into Alexander's usual margins. In Wynne's Fourth Ward, for example, Alexander still led Lambert 295 to 76. Margins like that couldn't offset Lambert's five- and six-to-one margins elsewhere in the majority white district.)

After high school graduation, Lambert was headed for SMU. But one trip to Dallas convinced Lambert that the high society school wasn't for her. She chose instead Randolph Macon College for Women in Lynchburg, Va., a small liberal arts college with a good reputation.

"One thing a women's college does for you is create an arena where you can concentrate on developing and building your skills without being threatened," she said.

And, she added, "There were plenty of men's colleges around to have fun."

Fun is a word that pops up a lot with Blanche Lambert. "There's no point in running for Congress if you don't have fun," she recalls as counsel from one friend.

At first blush, Lambert's vivid eyebrows and tinted blonde hair are eerily reminiscent of First Lady Hillary Clinton. But the smiles are more ready, the accent closer to home, the answers windier and, if confident, less certain. Lambert's contrast with the often distant Alexander couldn't have been starker, certainly not as press criticism made him ever more churlish.

Lambert graduated in four years with a degree in biology and average grades, a college tenure that included a sophomore year at the University of Arkansas. Like the daughters of many old-line Arkansas families, she'd already attended a party or two at Fayetteville in high school years. She packed a career of Fayetteville into her one year there — Chi Omega, little sister of Sigma Chi, Angel Flight, program seller at football games, Campus Crusade for Christ. But unlike many who transfer back to Arkansas after beginning college at a faraway school, Lambert went back to Virginia.

After graduation, she put off plans for graduate work in health sciences in favor of spending some time in Washington.

She stomped around Capitol Hill, making calls on friends and contacts, until an entry level job turned up in Bill Alexander's office. She answered phones, greeted people and generally handled receptionist-type chores at first, but worked up to answering mail and dealing with constituent requests.

She decided she liked legislative research and wasn't likely to move up in the veteran staff around Alexander, so she moved on to a law firm, then finally to Pagonis and Donnelly Group, a major lobbying firm. She rose to senior associate, a registered lobbyist, though she spent most of her time in research on issues ranging from the Clean Air Act to Medicare.

But she ached to return to her roots, an aching that prompted a long talk with an old friend, who giggled and said, "With your background and knowledge, you could be a representative."

Her decision was made last summer, after talks with a college friend with whom she shared a house and garden in a D.C. suburb. "I said my prayers, thought about it a month or two and decided that's what wanted to do."

She visited Bill Alexander to tell him. "There's nothing I hate worse than gossip or hearsay," she said. "I told him this is what I feel like I need to do."

Alexander was taken somewhat aback by the direct young woman from Helena. And he never really came to grips with her in the campaign. Alexander is a battler and there's a natural constituency of black people and many populist whites who like his somewhat liberal views. But he had no ground to fight Lambert on. And then he was beset by more financial troubles, the House bank mess chief among them.

It's worth noting that the House bank and the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill drama, which jump-started the push for more women in public office, had not broken when Lambert decided to run.

And run she did, largely ignored until March, when a couple of people, including filmmaker Beth Brickell, saw a possibility and signed on. But mostly she was helped by Alexander himself.

Though Alexander's people say otherwise, you get the strong sense that he knew the end was near. In previous campaigns, he's gone to the bank for loans to push last minute campaigns. This time he stuck to a vow to try to avoid deficit spending, his campaign manager H.T. Moore said.

"I don't think spending any amount of money would have changed the perception that there was a problem in Washington and it was time for a change," Moore says.

Alexander was gracious in defeat. He congratulated Lambert early and profusely. He sent her flowers and a note the morning after. If there's any outward bitterness, it's in supporters noting that Lambert never was forced to commit on issues.

That will change. And Lambert's eyes likely will be opened wider at the force of the attacks she will endure when some of her positions are better known. For example:

Term limit amendment: "We have term limits. It's called the vote. We need change, but I don't think it needs to be legislated. It needs to come from the people."

Balanced budget amendment: "Changing the constitution sets a dangerous precedent. I am leery of that. The key is having responsible leadership."

Line item veto: "I think it concentrates a great deal of power into one person's hands. If we can get responsible leadership, they can make those decisions."

Capital gains tax break: "Until we deal with the deficit, I don't think there's room for any kind of tax cuts."

Abortion: "It should be a decision a woman makes with her family and her Creator." Does that mean she favors legislation requiring notice of husbands? "I think there are certain instances where husbands have a right to know, but it should not be legislated."

Death penalty: "So much of this goes back to my upbringing. I was always taught you could never ask someone to do what you couldn't do yourself. I don't think I could pull that switch."

Family leave legislation and expanded support of child care: "Yes."

Dan Quayle on Murphy Brown: "Television plays too big a role in our lives. But there are a great deal of people out there whose lives are different and they all have a place and they all have needs and they all deserve a fair shake. Everybody's entitled to a few mistakes and if we're really the compassionate nation we say we are, we can recognize that."

Terry Hayes, 55, the Heber Springs securities salesman, real estate broker, and former miniature golf course owner; awaits Lambert in the fall. Conventional wisdom says he can't beat her. It also said she coudn't beat Bill Alexander.

Hayes, too, says he is running for change and professes no sorrow that he won't have Bill Alexander to kick around. "The lady has no issues to run on," he said. Based on a few of the answers above, Hayes would appear to be yet one more man who has underestimated Blanche Lambert.

Blanche Lambert: Up close and personal

Birth date: Sept. 30, 1960.

She drives: A 1990 Jeep Cherokee.

She currently lives: With her parents.

She attends: The Episcopalian Church.

She has read recently: "My Father the Bookmaker," "Prince of Tides," and magazines, including Southern Living, Smithsonian and National Geographic.

She hates: Spending money on parking (she once had her car booted) and on getting her hair fixed.

Her best friend: Her mother (to whom she has an uncanny resemblance).

Her personal life: A very polite MYOB. Then, yes, she has a romantic interest, an unnamed Little Rock-born doctor, a specialist in reproductive endocrinology.

Her pre-election expectations: "I was brought up to never be expectant, but to know that hard work produces success. I knew I had worked hard and that, regardless of what happened, I could be proud of a job well done."

Political label: "A little bit left of center. It's hard to say you're Democratic without saying you're a little bit left of center."

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