Why Is this Woman Smiling?

She's been heckled, threatened, and placed on Sarah Palin's hit list. Yet Democratic Congresswoman Betsy Markey is raking in campaign money and still thinks she can hold the traditionally conservative 4th District come November.

May 2010

The Northern Colorado Cowboy Church is a former honky-tonk saloon that's made mostly of barn wood and was remodeled with the sweat of plainspoken, God-fearing Republicans. The building is tucked between a roadside motel ($45 per night, HBO and local calls included) and some grain silos across U.S. 85—a barren stretch of highway abutted on both sides by rutted fields that run north to Cheyenne. It's jumper-cable cold this Sunday morning in January, and children are spilling out of their parents' growling, diesel-fueled Dodge Rams and pouring through the church's doors, where their pastor—a smooth-faced man dressed in a tan hat, a brown plaid shirt, Cinch jeans, and a belt buckle the size of a cow's hoof that reads "Jesus Is Lord"—bids them good-morning in a country drawl.

A few hundred people are taking their seats inside the cavernous main room when a white Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid pulls off the road and rolls to a stop in the parking lot. The few people still outside stare as the woman gets out of her eco-friendly ride one high-heeled boot at a time. She ain't from these parts. Nope, this lady looks lost. But before anyone can offer their help, she walks past them, smiling at the staring faces. She opens the church door and sees the pastor.

"Hello!" Markey chirps, sticking out her hand. "I'm here for church."

Inside the auditorium—a converted dance floor with spotted cowhides tacked to the wall and an American flag on the stage—a "praise-and-worship" band is fiddling and strumming away while 450 people lower their heads in unison to pray. The church's pastor, Darin Gleghorn, adjusts his hat and takes the stage. "Lord," the pastor says, "you are our Daddy. You are our Father." He prays for "our people in Congress and the Senate and our president." And then he makes an announcement: "I'd like to introduce Congresswoman Betsy Markey, who's come all the way from Washington, D.C., to be with us today!"

From the middle of the third row, Markey raises a hand. The applause is light. She puts her hand down, but the few folks keep clapping. A few more start in, then some more. Soon, everyone's applauding. One person stands. Then another. Now almost everyone is standing. Markey looks almost embarrassed and mouths the words "thank you" to these people, her constituents, patting her heart to show them how much this moment means to her.

Gleghorn lets the applause settle before telling his parishioners that his wife, Lynette, will be speaking today. "Let's get a woman's common sense up here!" the pastor says of his wife.

Markey nearly jumps out of her seat in excitement. "That's right!" she yelps.

Lynette Gleghorn is dressed in brown cowboy boots, brown pants, a denim jacket, and is dripping in turquoise jewelry. Her delivery is part Pat Robertson, part Conan O'Brien, part Dr. Laura, and for a moment it seems she is speaking directly to her congresswoman: ".... And God promised to Abraham, 'I will make you a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.' " She steps off the stage. "You are not given prosperity and financial provisions so that you can sit on your fat butt and look good to everybody else," Lynette says. "The reason you are given financial prosperity is so that you are blessed to meet your needs and help other people meet their needs. That is Biblical prosperity. Amen?"

"Amen," Markey says.

A half hour later, the service ends and the band whips up again.

A woman taps Markey on the shoulder; her son can't get health insurance. Another woman stands behind Markey; her husband just lost his job. There's a man back there, too; he's been getting his disability checks late. Markey listens and then has her district director hand out his business cards to anyone who wants one. Afterward, she waits in line to talk to Lynette, who's ministering at the foot of the stage. Two cowboys block her way.

"You'll have to wait here, ma'am," one of the cowboys tells her.

Lynette waves the congresswoman over. "It was such an honor to have you here," she beams, putting Markey's hands in hers. "I really hope you enjoyed being here."

"Oh, I did," Markey tells the pastor. "You were amazing. I hope you'll have me back."

The two share a smile and say good-bye. With that, Markey heads for the parking lot. She's smiling.

"I think that went well," she tells her aide. "Those were remarkable people. And so nice. That pastor was amazing."

At this moment, many months from Election Day, there's a confidence in Markey's voice that perhaps she hasn't had in months. She's made inroads here, Markey knows. "I'm so glad I came," she says. She gets into her hybrid, and in a few moments she's speeding down U.S. 85.

The following month, Markey and her husband are chessing out her next move. It's still four weeks before her health-care vote, and she hasn't made a decision, though it seems as if she's leaning against supporting the proposal. The costs of the package are on her mind, a concern that eases when the Congressional Budget Office reports that the reform package would cut $1.3 trillion from the deficit over 20 years. Three days before the March vote, she informs House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office that she's gone from "undecided" to a firm "yes." "Of course," Markey says, "they were elated."

As for her constituents, "I've been pretty evenly split on calls" that support or oppose the legislation. "I made what I thought was the right decision," she said in late March. "The status quo was unsustainable."

Now, the challenge shifts to selling her decision to the folks in the 4th District. "There are times when members of Congress vote for what they think is the right thing to do," Waak says. "It may not be totally in keeping with some of their constituents. At the very least, they owe their constituents an explanation of how they came to that decision."

Heading into the spring, her political life certainly looked challenging, though not as dire as it had first appeared. Cory Gardner, the conservative state representative, had blown past four opponents in the Republican caucus, had raised about $274,000 (in the first quarter of this year), and had declared that his candidacy would focus on repealing the newly passed health-care legislation. "I Need Your Help Today to Defeat the Markey/Pelosi 'Healthcare' bill," Gardner wrote to his Twitter followers in mid-March, tying Markey back to the controversial House speaker. Then came the prominent editorial (Denver Post: "Betsy Markey caved to partisan interests and abandoned her initial principled opposition to flawed health care legislation") and the Palin campaign promise.

In a matter of weeks, the 4th District went from a referendum on Markey's legislative work to something much more complex: The 4th had become a potential bellwether, a national Rorschach test, on the Obama administration, on human values, on liberal versus conservative, and on the country's future. And there was Besty Markey, right in the middle of it all.