Offices of an entrenched United States Senator in Washington, D.C., bespeak privilege and insularity. A Senator has ample budget to hire young people to write his/her speeches, Tweets, and press statements. He/she has political assistants to make those phone calls that keep the senatorial toga unspotted by sordid necessities of fundraising. The Senator has hideaway offices and anterooms where former top aides bring lobbying clients to meet present-day top aides.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., now 70 years old, was once a breath of fresh air in the Senate’s musty culture. In her first Senate speech — on the dearth of research devoted to women’s health issues — she spoke movingly of friends who died of ovarian cancer. As daughter of a veteran who developed multiple sclerosis, she staged a field hearing to dress down Bush II administration brass at the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs who wanted to shut down the VA medical complex in Walla Walla.
Well, that was then. Nearly 30 years after joining the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” the former Shoreline pre-school teacher has taken on trappings of power, a familiar path. Oregon Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley hustle around their state to hundreds of town meetings. Murray holds none. She meets mainly with people who agree with her. She is flanked by handlers. She practices the kabuki dance of legislation, joining other Senate Democratic leaders to introduce bills they know will go nowhere but score points with interest groups.
The Murray Malaise is catching up with her. KING TV released a statewide poll last week in which voters by a 47-31 percent margin said they do not want Murray to seek a sixth term in 2022. The figures were pretty much uniform around the state, with even 25 percent of fellow Democrats saying the “mom in tennis shoes” should not run again.
The poll is unsettling for Murray on a couple of counts. Washington leans Democratic, but the state is rapidly growing. The findings suggest that fewer people know of Murray and what she’s doing. The regal trappings have cut into the senator’s “one of us” appeal, dating back to the days when Murray was an accessible, down-to-earth person. A scene in the Spokane airport a few years back revealed what made Sen. Murray so attractive to voters. The senator sent away a nervous aide to make his calls as she waited for Alaska Airlines’ last flight to Seattle. Without hesitation, fellow passengers came up to chat. The conversations were easy and informal, not a crank in sight.
But she has become increasingly buffered. After three decades of doing a tough job –- with two stints chairing the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee — it’s understandable that Murray would appreciate protection and is said to be mulling retirement. The trappings put emphasis on staged events. A group of women share details of a problem in their lives. Murray explains details of a bill she has introduced that will help with that problem. It’s eerily reminiscent of daytime television’s old “Queen for a Day” show.
In its annual rating of Congress, Washingtonian magazine once put Murray in the “no rocket scientist” category. They’re mistaken. She’s had an instinct for the path to solutions. As Senate Budget Committee chair she worked out an agreement with House GOP counterpart Paul Ryan that staved off a government shutdown. She persuaded obdurate House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rep. Doc Hastings of Eastern Washington to stop blocking legislation to expand the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area and protect the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River.
Another episode of the Murray instinct for finding solutions occurred when Washington Democrats came home in 2010 for a big shindig celebrating passage of the Affordable Care Act, held at the Boeing Aerospace Machinists Hall. Political boilerplate was served up. Outside in the rain, however, residents of nearby South Park lined up in protest. The old South Park Bridge had just been permanently closed. No replacement was yet planned for a major industrial route, a road that supported neighborhood businesses. The message delivered outside found its way inside the union hall. As King County Executive Dow Constantine recently related, Murray set to work and found a fund to be tapped at the U.S. Department of Transportation. A handsome new bridge was built (with a lot of help from the county), to go along with federal dollars helping rebuild Mercer Street.
Political antennae are needed to not let problems fester. Flashes of the old Murray are still witnessed, but in the “other” Washington. She mustered 50 Senate votes against confirmation of Betsy DeVos as Trump’s U.S. Secretary of Education. (VP Mike Pence broke the tie.) She fought for the child tax credit that is a major part of Biden’s American Rescue Plan. A recent New Yorker article, tracing the slow federal response to COVID-19, praised Murray as one of the first to be alert to the pandemic. Said the article:
She (Murray) knows how illness can upend people economically, and how government can help . . . She had heard about the first confirmed COVID case in the U.S. – the man had traveled from Wuhan to Washington, her state. Murray contacted local public health officials, who seemed to be doing everything right: the man was hospitalized, and health officials were tracing a few possible contacts. Suddenly, they were tracking dozens of people. Murray said to herself, ‘Wow, this is kinda scary. And this is in my back yard. But in the outbreak’s early days, when decisiveness mattered most, few other politicians were paying attention.
Past campaigns have seen clumsy Republican efforts to depict Murray as out of-touch with this Washington. In 2010, Karl Rove’s dark money PAC, Crossroads GPS, spent more than $4 million against her, sending out mailing after mailing. However, the out-of-touch mailings carried a return address on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C. A top aide to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell was dispatched to help GOP challenger Dino Rossi. Murray won in 2010 and easily dispatched the Republican opponent, Chris Vance, in 2016.
The attack themes may resonate in 2022. Murray is now chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, but she is decidedly less visible in her home state. Before retiring from SeattlePI.com, I tried repeatedly to get a schedule so I could catch Murray at non-scripted events. It seemed a reasonable request, as I’d been reporting on her since her first Senate race. “Thank you for reaching out,” the press secretary would respond, and then stonewall the request. In the meantime, such House colleagues as U.S. Reps. Derek Kilmer, Rick Larsen, and Kim Schrier hold multiple town meetings, lately virtual.
Murray and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., have now co-represented Washington for 20 years. Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, the “gold dust twins,” were together for 28 years. A decade into that reign, however, Maggie had a close scare: The old pork barreler remade himself as a champion of the American consumer and the person who kept oil supertankers off Puget Sound. Adaptation is one key to survival in politics.
As a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray can raise a lot of money next year. Joe Biden, as vice president, came out here for her in 2010, as did both Barack and Michelle Obama. Small donors can count on an email blitz, with the manufactured desperation of Murray fundraiser Tracy Newman’s they-are-out-to-get-me money appeals.
Murray could decide to hang it up after 30 years, which would come as a shock. Only one Washington senator in the past 75 years – Dan Evans in 1988 – has voluntarily left the Senate. The Democrats have a big, impatient bench in waiting. Two statewide officeholders, AG Bob Ferguson and Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz, as well as King County Executive Dow Constantine, started up gubernatorial campaigns while Gov. Jay Inslee was (briefly) running for President. Rep. Derek Kilmer is a standout House player of the center left. Out on the left, Rep. Pramila Jayapal has a big Seattle following, but outside her liberal base she had her head handed to her when she poured bucks into Beth Doglio’s campaign for Congress in the 10th District, where the more centrist Marilyn Strickland won in a walk.
If she does want a sixth term, Murray needs to get out on the hustings and reintroduce herself to the folks. She’ll need to answer non-scripted questions. She has shied away from spontaneous occasions. Until the pandemic, Pacific County Democrats’ annual crab feed was the state’s oldest continuous political event – and barrels of fun. Sen. Cantwell dished out potato salad in the food line, while Rep. Kilmer and AG Bob Ferguson put crabs on peoples’ paper plates. Murray never shows up.
It was different back on election day of 2010, when Democrats mounted a get-out-the-vote drive. At 7 a.m., as volunteers were picking up their packets at Everett’s grungy Labor Temple, Murray arrived clad in blue jeans and an old quilted coat. She stood in the early morning cold, thanking those headed out to save her Senate seat.
Our senior U.S. Senator was more engaged then.