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Woolsey steps down after 20 years in Congress

Lynn Woolsey can't sit still.

Over coffee at her Petaluma home, the retiring Democratic congresswoman fidgets and scolds, cusses a little and raises her arms in exasperation.

She speaks passionately about her opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a position that earned the septuagenarian acclaim as the conscience of the Congress, and derision from the political right as a traitor to the nation.

She's sat with Stephen Colbert, sparred with Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay, been fawned over by former President Bill Clinton and been virtually ignored while speaking on the House floor. She's been lauded, arrested, mocked and emulated. Through it all, she handily beat every challenger who dared try to dethrone her.

On the verge of retirement — her replacement will be sworn in Thursday — Woolsey, 75, offered an assessment of her career as only she could, dismissing her critics as "full of sh--," and making no apologies for being "a liberal for 20 years in an organization where people would rather you go along to get along."

She is, in many ways, the same outspoken everywoman who shocked the North Coast's political establishment in 1992 by winning what was then the 6th District Congressional seat. She was the longest of long shots, a former welfare mom running against better-known and better-financed opponents. But it was the "Year of the Woman" in California politics, and Woolsey surfed the wave to victory.

In the ensuing two decades, she built one of the most consistently liberal voting records in the House, earning both praise and scorn and raising her profile well beyond Sonoma and Marin counties.

Her greatest legacy is her anti-war activism that included an unprecedented string of speeches on the House floor — often to an empty chamber — in which she denounced conflict and demanded that the troops come home. She delivered her 444th and final such oration Dec. 12.

All that is behind Woolsey as she sits in her kitchen, clutching one of the four cups of coffee she consumes daily. Other than a few magnets with political messages stuck to her refrigerator — "Stop the Party of No!" — there is little to suggest that this is anything but the home of a doting grandmother, albeit one who recently surpassed 3 million airline miles commuting to work and now professes a desire to stay put.

"I wouldn't mind learning how to relax," she said.


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