“I’m very plainspoken,” she said. “I don’t mince words. … If you talk to Texans, they’ll always say, ‘I’m scared to death of Kay Granger.’”
She laughed and continued, “It is kind of funny. But there’s a seriousness to it. Absolutely.”
The 72-year-old has built her political career on being serious and being taken seriously — both as a legislator looking out for her Fort Worth district and as a woman in a field dominated by men.
“I want to be a person of substance, so I want to take on serious issues,” Granger told her first chief of staff, Ken Mehlman, in 1996. “I’ll work very hard, I’ll always be knowledgeable, and I want to be a go-to person. I want other members to respect me and say, ‘Ah, let’s ask Kay what her ideas are.’”
“She had been an extraordinarily accomplished mayor,” Mehlman told CQ Roll Call. “Our question was, ‘How do you provide the same level of leadership and service as a member of Congress, where it’s much harder?’ Mayors solve problems; many in Congress [just] talk.”
Mehlman, who would later become chairman of the Republican National Committee, urged Granger to pursue committee assignments relevant to her district — Defense, National Security, Transportation — and to be a “workhorse, not a show horse.”
Fast-forward 18 years and Granger is considered one of the most effective policymakers in the House. She’s most visible as the chairwoman of the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, where she wields a “tough love” approach to allocating precious funding for the line items in her purview.
“She’s smart, she’s tough and she gets things done,” said Rep. Kevin Brady, a fellow Texas Republican, of his close friend, whom he compares to Margaret Thatcher.
“Pakistan learned this, when she withheld $8-plus billion until they began proving that they were a more reliable ally in the war on terror,” Brady said. “The White House has learned that, as she’s made clear that the U.S. will keep its promises to provide military support for our allies.”
Members say Granger might have had an alternative political life as a member of House GOP leadership. A conference vice chairwoman in the 110th Congress, she told CQ Roll Call she still gets asked by colleagues to get back on the leadership track. But while her one-term stint in leadership was “interesting,” she said with a tight smile, it ultimately was “not for me.”
For Granger, part of being serious is staying focused on legislating, and she’s always been more interested in earning respect in the policy world than being a national household name.
“Everybody sort of determines what they want to be, and if it’s someone who wants to be seen and heard a lot, then you have to be on the floor a lot and speak,” Granger said. “I didn’t always want to fight for the cameras. That didn’t appeal to me at all.”
Which doesn’t mean she’s lost her clout with party leaders, especially Speaker John A. Boehner. Last summer, the Ohio Republican did more than just take Granger’s unsolicited advice to pursue a congressional response to the surge of child migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border: He established a task force and appointed Granger the leader.
And in the fall, with Granger due to be term-limited out of her subcommittee chairmanship this session, she implored Boehner, with Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers’ blessing, to grant her a rare waiver to serve another two years. Granger tells the story with a good-natured impression of a gruff Boehner feigning ignorance of his own rule and scoffing at her concerns that he wouldn’t let her keep the post.
“It was quite funny,” she said with a chuckle.
“I value her counsel and guidance,” Boehner said in a statement to CQ Roll Call. “She is always ready, willing and able to do what’s right for her district and her country, and I especially appreciate that she is one of the most experienced women in our team — which always lends to a valuable perspective.”
Granger prefers to be known for her work, but she recognizes there’s a certain weight to her legacy: She is the first — and still the only — Republican woman to represent Texas in the House.
“Of course, you want to do it really well if you’re the first,” she acknowledged. “I was the first woman mayor of Fort Worth, and it was important for me to do a really good job there, too, for the next woman, so they’d never say, ‘Can she do it because she’s a woman?’ They would just say, ‘Ah, Kay did a good job, so this works.’”
People who have watched her over the years attribute much of her success in Washington to the reputation she brought from Fort Worth.
When she arrived in 1996, she went to leadership and ticked off the reasons she needed to be on this committee or work on that project. There was a sense senior lawmakers were eager to give her whatever she wanted, which continues to be the case.
“There was a lot of excitement about her,” recalled Ron Bonjean, who was Granger’s first spokesman on Capitol Hill and is now a political strategist. “She was a fresh face in the Republican Party.”
But she’s had trying moments. When she ran for mayor, a local organization weighing an endorsement asked her (but not the male candidates) to submit a “white paper” on her religious beliefs and her values as a single mother (pre-politics, Granger’s divorce left her to support three young children and necessitated a career change from teaching to the insurance industry).
“I was in a business where there were very few women in it, so I was used to working with men,” Granger said of the incident. “I was used to that, but it was peculiar.”
She refused to submit the memo and won anyway.
Matt Leffingwell, Granger’s chief of staff for more than two years until leaving Capitol Hill in January, said one of his favorite stories about his old boss goes back to Fort Worth. He said early in her political career, Granger was known to carry around a stack of résumés of impressive young women, handing them to anyone who asked her to take on yet another responsibility to fulfill a gender-diversity quota.
Today, Granger still makes it a priority to help other women, particularly Republican women. She said she is particularly hopeful freshman Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., a retired Air Force colonel, will have a bright future in the House.
She also hosts an annual luncheon in Fort Worth for women who follow her work or have helped her in her professional life. She calls it her “woman’s summit,” but said the event is actually more like an opportunity to update constituents.
“I’m answerable to them,” she said.
Granger swears she never intended to get into politics, but it’s where she ended up and it’s where she’s been able to make a difference. As long as she can be effective, she said, she’ll stick around.
“I’ll never retire,” she said with a twinkle in her eye, a vow that came across as part cheery promise, part fair warning.