Longtime Republican Survivor Margaret Heckler Dies, 87

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2018/08/07/longtime-republican-survivor-margaret-heckler-dies-87/

Former U.S. Representative Margaret Heckler (R-Wellesley) died Monday, August 6 in Virginia. She was 87.

A moderate Republican, the former Margaret Mary O’Shaughnessy championed the Equal Rights Amendment but also opposed abortion.

Heckler represented an area west and southwest of Boston in Congress from 1967 to 1983. Her 1982 defeat by then-U.S. Representative Barney Frank (by 19 points) was a milestone in Massachusetts’s leftward drift.

After her loss Heckler quickly got an appointment as secretary of Health and Human Services under President Ronald Reagan.

While she was a Cabinet member her husband, John Heckler, a lawyer and financial adviser who had managed several of his wife’s campaigns for Congress, filed for divorce. He publicly claimed that Margaret had chosen her political career over him.

He acknowledged in an interview at the time that he had strayed with other women, but claimed that Margaret’s obsession with her political life had been “the original infidelity.” Margaret declined to comment.

During the same interview John Heckler claimed Margaret persuaded then-candidate Reagan in 1980 to appoint a woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. Reagan’s first nominee to the court was Sandra Day O’Connor.

Margaret Heckler was born in New York City in 1931 and grew up on Long Island, the daughter of a hotel doorman. She graduated from Albertus Magnus College, which was then a Catholic women’s school, in New Haven, Connecticut. That’s where she met her future husband, who was a student at Sacred Heart in nearby Fairfield. After marrying in 1953, the two came to Massachusetts to attend law school; she was the only woman in the Boston College Law School class of 1956.

In Wellesley she became a member of representative Town Meeting. She got elected to the Governor’s Council, which reviews and confirms judicial nominations, in 1962.

In 1966 she knocked off a Republican institution, former U.S. House Speaker Joe Martin of North Attleborough, who was 82 at the time, in the GOP primary, then won the general election. She stayed for eight terms.

Critics called her indecisive and light on principles; it was a running gag among her fellow Massachusetts congressional delegation members that she often waited to see how other members of the Massachusetts delegation voted before voting herself. She was noted for finding ways to attract cameras, but was generally skittish about dealing with reporters, according to a mostly negative profile in The Washington Post shortly after her appointment to the Cabinet.

Supporters said that she worked hard to provide constituent services, often championed the underdog, consistently upheld women’s concerns, and was an astute politician, surviving for years in a Democratic and increasingly liberal state.

After the 1980 federal census Massachusetts lost a congressional district. Beacon Hill lawmakers combined parts of Heckler’s former district with parts of then-freshman Congressman Barney Frank’s – a sign that neither one was held in favor. So the 1982 election pitted two sitting Massachusetts members of Congress running against each other.

Geographically, most of the new district was Heckler’s old district, but politically, registered Democrats in the new district outnumbered registered Republicans, 2.6 to 1. The economy was bad, and Reagan was unpopular that fall; Heckler was one of many casualties that November for the Republicans, who lost 27 seats in the House.

After two sometimes-tumultuous years as health and human services secretary, during which some administration officials criticized her for being too liberal and for her management style, she was offered a job she didn’t want:  ambassador to Ireland.

Once she got to Ireland, though, she loved it. She was an active and generally popular figure in Ireland, where she represented U.S. foreign policy vigorously but also lobbied her own government to help Ireland. Heckler’s parents had immigrated to Queens from Limerick, and Heckler had spent a year in County Leitrim as a child before the family returned to New York.

She spent four years as ambassador to Ireland. When she left Ireland in 1989, she returned to Arlington, Virginia, her political career over at age 58.

A family member said she died Monday of a heart attack at a local hospital, according to The Washngton Post.

She leaves behind three children and four grandchildren.