In the course of her day, U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester visits with DREAMers./By Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
It’s the last stop of a 12-hour day during which Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester has met with constituents throughout the state. Now, she’s standing in a room filled with young college students, seemingly making simultaneous eye contact with everyone in the audience as she moves around the room in a flame of red.
“Why are you here? What is your purpose?” she asks the crowd.
“We are each put on this planet for a purpose,” she says. “Nobody can take that away from you. Take every bit of it—the good, the bad and the ugly, and use it. That pain got me to this place.”
Blunt Rochester is serving her second term occupying Delaware’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. She is also the first woman and the first black legislator to represent Delaware in Congress in its 228-year history.
Blunt Rochester agreed to let me follow her around on Aug. 29, sharing a glimpse of her life as a congresswoman.
Our day began at Trinity Logistics, one of the largest employers in Seaford, with more than 400 local employees involved in supply chain solutions. The congresswoman is in a conference room, fielding questions about trucking laws, self-driving vehicles and the challenge of attracting young tech employees to Sussex County. She listens to people’s concerns, asking questions wherever there is uncertainty and “busting myths” whenever she catches them. “People often think I am at my busiest when I’m in [Washington], D.C.,” she says. “When Congress is not in session is actually when I am busiest. But it’s also the most important part for me—hearing what my constituents are thinking and discussing what we are both getting wind of.”
Blunt Rochester can meet with dozens of constituents in the course of a work day./By Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
After winning her second term, Blunt Rochester sought out and became part of the coveted House Committee on Energy and Commerce, which oversees telecommunications, consumer protection, food and drug safety, public health research, environmental quality, energy policy, and interstate and foreign commerce. This diverse expertise comes in handy repeatedly as we move through the day.
From Seaford, we drive to the congresswoman’s Georgetown office, where she has meetings with three other groups of constituents. The first is The National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC), who thank the representative for her help sponsoring bills and working against the privatization of the U.S. Postal Service. They also express concerns surrounding unregulated Amazon drivers and mail-carrier safety. When one of the members of NALC asks Blunt Rochester what current legislation is most important to her, she says it’s a new bill that would cap an individual’s total annual medical costs at no more than 10 percent of their salary. “Wherever I go, this is the issue I hear the most,” she says. “People should not have to choose between their house and their health.”
Next up, Blunt Rochester meets with Housing First, an organization that works to provide a path out of homelessness outside of shelters using innovative solutions like tiny home communities. It’s a topic she became well-versed in during her time as Delaware’s deputy secretary of Health and Social Services.
Choosing to convene the meeting around a small table instead of sitting behind her desk, she doesn’t come across as a politician with pat responses; she’s an intense listener who identifies the flow of each conversation and finds her place in it.
The final meeting in her office is with Jennifer Fugua, the executive director of La Esperanza, a group founded by Carmelite nuns as a place of hope for immigrants and their families. It’s a meeting the congresswoman requested as a check in, a practice she follows whenever possible. Each meeting ends with specific plans, ways in which she can connect her constituents to other “champions” who can help move them toward success. The idea of making multiple connections to leaders in Delaware arises again and again, and she says the ability to do so is among the state’s unique strengths.
Blunt Rochester greets Ruth “Amber” Greenwood during a visit to Genesis Healthcare in Dover./By Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
Later, when we arrive at Genesis Healthcare in Dover, the congresswoman begins with a tour of the expansive rehabilitation facility. In one of the open-air courtyards, she approaches Ruth “Amber” Greenwood, a lifelong Republican who seemed unfamiliar with Blunt Rochester. By the end of their short conversation, Amber was smiling and asked me to take a photo of her and the congresswoman on her smartphone. Blunt Rochester then meets with members of the Genesis staff in their large conference room to discuss some of their recent challenges, including the aggressive implementation of fines.
Blunt Rochester grew up in Philadelphia before her family moved to Wilmington when she was 7 after her father, Ted, got a job at People’s Settlement Association.
She graduated from Padua Academy and later took an intern position with then-Delaware Rep. Tom Carper. Finances forced her to leave Villanova University as an undergrad. She resumed her studies at the University of Delaware, where she left to take a travel opportunity to Europe, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University and a master’s degree in urban affairs from UD before becoming Delaware’s secretary of labor and CEO of the Wilmington Urban League. In 2014, Blunt Rochester’s husband Charles died unexpectedly from an Achilles rupture resulting from a blood clot while playing basketball. These adversities, and the perspective she’s gained from them, prove to be a valuable tool as she moves from boardroom to classroom to social setting.
Blunt Rochester tours the Sustainable Energy Training Center at Delaware Technical Community College./By Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
At the Sustainable Energy Training Center at Delaware Technical Community College, the congresswoman leads a tour of the new facility and ends up in a classroom. She asks the students why they are there and what they hope to accomplish. In one of the electronics labs, she learns about hands-on wiring techniques and discusses challenges faced by schools that have strong trade programs, where, she is told, there are rarely enough students for all the scholarships available.
“Why are you here? What is your purpose?” We find ourselves at the end of the day, in that hall with more than 100 young college students.
All of them are DREAMers: young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and have lived in the U.S. most of their lives. They have come to Dover from different states as part of the Opportunity Scholars Program that creates scholarships for DREAMers to attend participating colleges like Delaware State University.
Before we arrived, the congresswoman told me: “My main goal is to stand in front of them, have them look at me and let them see that this can be them, that they can do this [too].” I noticed how, well into a long and intense day, her energy had actually improved.
(At right): Blunt Rochester shows off a scarf she wears that features a replica of her formerly enslaved ancestor’s voter registration card./By Joe del Tufo, Moonloop Photography
As she’s speaking, she moves from the podium and begins to actively engage the students: “I got to be there when we voted in the house for the DREAM act. I was there. I voted for it.” The connection is palpable, and the room is quiet enough that you can hear her footsteps as she moves around. She holds up a scarf that shows a replica of her great-great-great grandfather’s Reconstruction-era voting card, signed simply with an X since as a slave he was not permitted to read or write.
One of the DREAMers raises her hand and says, “I don’t have a question. I just want to thank you for being you and being the inspiration you are.”
“Why are you here? What is your purpose?” Blunt Rochester asks the crowd. Answering her own questions, she says, “I am the great-great-great granddaughter of slaves, and now I am the first female and African American to represent Delaware. I am here to help people live their purpose.”
A Day in the Life is an ongoing photo essay series following the life of an interesting Delawarean throughout their day. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester is the first in this series.