In 2006, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg was putting together a gift for her husband, Frank, a U.S. senator from New Jersey for most of the past three decades. She photographed him in the Capitol and paired it with a description of some of his most important legislation as a senator.
"I thought, this is great," she said. "Now I know what he did. What did the other 99 do?"
Lautenberg set about convincing every senator from the 109th Congress and new members from the 110th to pose for her. Though her husband said she'd never get them all, he was wrong. Over many months, Lautenberg took 113 portraits and recorded the piece of legislation that each senator considers his or her signature bill. The results will be displayed at the Mana Contemporary gallery in Jersey City, N.J., in October.
Lautenberg shared with Yeas & Nays some of the highlights of her research. "I was very surprised when I walked into Thad Cochran's office," she said. "He had a piano in his office."
The late Sen. Ted Kennedy surprised her by naming the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as his signature legislative achievement, rather than something health care related. Kennedy also had one of the better offices, she said, filled with historical photographs. Sen. Jay Rockefeller had another good one.
"There was no typical Senate furniture," she said. "It was beautifully decorated with American art."
The senators responded enthusiastically to her project, though one was particularly difficult to track down: then-Sen. Hillary Clinton.
"Her staff gave me a very hard time," Lautenberg said. "They wouldn't call me back." Luckily, she ran into an acquaintance, Clinton staffer Huma Abedin, at a coffee shop and pitched her. Clinton posed for her shortly after. ("She looks gorgeous," Lautenberg added.)
Lautenberg says she learned a lot from her work and hopes it will help the public better understand the people who represent them. "Unless you really love the subject and you're watching C-SPAN," she said, "people are not familiar with their senator."