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Sunday, June 26, 2022

Failure to Meet: What’s Wrong with Washington’s US Senators?

Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., quietly marked an anniversary last week, celebrating his 500th town hall in the Beaver State since being elected to the Senate in 2008. This one was a virtual meeting in for citizens of coastal Lincoln County.

If voters keep him in office, Merkley may someday equal numbers put up by his seatmate, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who marked his 1,000th town meeting in Lane County (Eugene) last February. The total for Wyden, 970 in-person meetings, 31 virtual town halls, and 15 regional virtual town meetings for multiple counties held during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Choosing the county for my 1000th town hall posed a challenge as hard as somehow having to pick between sunrises in the Cascades or sunsets on the Coast,” said Wyden.

Washington doesn’t get to see senators hold such events at any time of day or day of the year.  Under pressure, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., did hold two town meetings in 2017: Most of the folks who turned out at the UW’s Kane Hall just thanked her for coming.  Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has held no town halls in recent years, and is reticent about schedules where voters can catch up with her.

The two Oregon Democrats win their elections in Multnomah, Lane, Washington, and Clackamas Counties in Western Oregon and the Greater Portland area.  Still, they raise the flag in deep-red Eastern Oregon counties. When Washington Democrats held a state central committee meeting in Walla Walla, one member had Ron Wyden as seatmate on a flight back to Seattle.  Wyden had been doing a town hall in nearby Milton-Freewater, Ore.

Each of Oregon’s 36 counties gets a senator’s visit, virtual or in person each year. It’s a state tradition. Even in the 1990s, bedeviled by sexual harassment allegations – which would later force him to quit the Senate – Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., hit the road in a camper, trailed by a truth squad of feminists.

“I hold a town hall in every county, every year, because they enable me to hear directly from folks on the ground about the ideas and priorities that matter most to them,” said Merkley, adding: “My town halls also continue to serve as safe spaces for people to express their points of view during these increasingly divisive times.”

On this side of the Columbia River, House members still hold town halls. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., with a diverse district, has become a master at disarming a tense or hostile situation. During the height of the Tea Party movement, Larsen faced a stadium in Everett evenly divided between Obama haters and Democratic union activists. He defused the situation by having everyone stand and sing the national anthem.

Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., represents perhaps the nation’s safest house seat, yet she began her tenure in Congress holding meetings in community centers, schools, and even Horizon House, a retirement community. The turnout was relentlessly liberal left. So frequent is uniform head nodding in agreement with Jayapal, a joke went, that it’s best to take Dramamine before the meeting begins.

As Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Big Tom Foley spent Easter week doing town halls in the southeast corner of the state. Foley sat with a Colfax High School student after one session, answering questions for a term paper.  The same angry critic would show up in Walla Walla year after year, wanting to now why America “wastes” so much money on foreign aid each year.

There is much to be learned on the road. Foley represented a district dependent on agricultural exports. The national reporters coming out to see him were surprised at detailed questions on export policy, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, tariffs and other barriers erected by counties protective of their wines.

Sen. Murray should know. In earlier times, when more accessible, she listened to and was moved by stories from women who were victims of domestic violence. It led to a landmark in her Senate career, the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, co-sponsored with colleague Joe Biden. She went to the mat successfully in 2013 to expand VAWA coverage to protection of women on Tribal reservations and LGBTQ victims of abuse. The act was again renewed and expanded by Congress last month.

Why resist town meetings?  Angry people started showing up in Tea Party times. Then-U.S. Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., loved meetings in his Southwest Washington district, but saw the fun go out of his job. The angry left showed up for Republican successor Jaime Herrera Beutler, causing her to embrace more sedate coffees.  “Coffees with Cathy” are a staple for GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who did hold town halls when facing a tough 2018 challenge.

Murray has been the object of threats, including physical threats, from the political extremes.  Fox News once got hold of remarks about U.S. difficulties in Afghanistan and made it appear that Murray was endorsing the Taliban’s social services.

Still, she is being depicted by this year’s Republican challenger Tiffany Smiley as a D.C. creature out of touch with this Washington. In earlier times, with Murray out and about, such charges could be laughed away.  She has, however, taken on accoutrements of a senior Senator, shielded by handlers and with access given mainly to those who agree with her. Example, a recent event put on by FUSE Washington, the state’s leading progressive lobby.

Murray has won five terms in the Senate, dispatching three incumbent House members in the process. She’s had only one real close call, in 2010. Defeat or near-defeat can change a politician’s behavior.  Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., lost his Senate seat in 1986, only to make a comeback in 1988. Sen. Gorton confessed that he had not been listening enough and cultivated a small town-rural base during his second Senate stint.  He held more than a dozen town halls a year and gave hours of his time to local advisory boards.

Such work has rewards. In his 2014 reelection, Jeff Merkley was targeted by nasty TV spots aired by dark money groups.  He placed worried phone calls to wealthy Democrats, begging money to counter the threat of Koch brothers and their allies.  The ads dropped off.  Merkley’s base was solid and more tempting targets were to be found elsewhere.  

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Good story Joel.
    Yes, the Soccer Mom has taken all of us for granted for a long time now.
    Patty ought to go home now and strap on those old tennis shoes that served her so well in 1992, the so-called Year of the Woman.

  2. Is this a trend ? You actually wrote something negative about members of the Democratic Party….. Is Murray going to get a primary challenge ?

  3. United States’ senators are not representatives of the people (directly) but rather they are sent to Washington DC to represent and protect the interests of their individual states (state houses). The 17th Amendment to the Constitution, while well-intended, skewed the balance which the Founding Fathers had built into our bicameral system.

    I don’t support the direct election of US senators because it turns senators into campaign fundraising panderers. We should repeal the 17th Amendment and make US senators accountable to their state houses once again.

  4. A quick update: Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has been hitting the road with 12 Town meetings so far in 2022. No challenger of Lisa Brown caliber on the horizon, but retail politics pays dividends,

  5. Disappointing, Joel. I think of the late Al Swift, who represented the 2nd district (Bellingham-Everett) for 12 years and held frequent public meetings with the expectation he would catch flak from both extremes. He didn’t do town halls for fun (they’re not,) nor to win votes (they don’t,) but to keep his feet on the ground.
    Murray and Cantwell were each elected to replace aging white guys who had been there too long. Now they’ve become the aging white guys — invisible, escorted around the capitol and through airports by staff, and rendered untouchable by huge campaign funds raised largely by lobbyists.
    Swift served his 12 years, then stepped aside to make room for new blood – Rick Larsen. He never regretted it. Here’s hoping our establishment senators can conjure up such wisdom.

    • Ross, I can hardly believe I’m writing this, as I’m writing this, but this is what happens when we fail to demand accountability of our Senators and we have no way of removing them. I loved it that the “mom in tennis shoes” got in. But that was so many years ago! I never thought I’d advocate for term limits, but it seems the only way — whether it’s a Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court, or a firmly entrenched US Senator I have always voted for, because there’s no one viable in the wings.

  6. As for toppling Sen. Murray, it usually requires some ambitious, relatively long-shot Democrat to declare early, thus breaking the ice and serving as a cat’s paw for a serious Democratic challenger (Bob Ferguson, Dow Constantine, Reuven Carlyle, Hilary Franz, Derek Kilmer) to jump in. These bigfoot candidates would not want to directly challenge a sitting Democrat, but if the ice breaker shows some traction, they could do so. An example is when Brady Walkinshaw decided to challenge a sitting Jim McDermott, the Congressman decided not to run again and Pramila Jayapal swept into the race (and won).

  7. Both Murray and Cantwell have to go. They’ve been there too long, and they don’t do enough to represent this state. Washington state is an economic and cultural powerhouse, and we need senators who can make use of that. Murray and Cantwell are virtually invisible when we need strong democratic leaders on the public stage.

    If Murray and Cantwell actually cared about the state, the country, and the Dems as a political force, they would resign. But they won’t because they’re selfish and out of touch.

    They consider their positions as “life-time” appointments. That’s a major problem with the Dem party in general. Nancy Pelosi has to go. Schumer has to go. Biden has to go. My goodness, it’s reported that Dianne Feinstein no longer recognizes long-time associates. Dems need leaders who are present, who can speak not just coherently, but can generate enthusiasm and message properly.

    But they’d rather keep their positions of political power and watch the country go down the drain at the hands of Republican voters.

  8. Patty was a huge disappointment for me, I sent a detailed, not flaming but disturbed email expressing my dispointnentnthat she didn’t stand up for Al Franken asking why she did what she did. Months later I got a off point email, misspelling my name- actually not even close and clearly not addressing my email. I didn’t expect a response to me directly but I was shocked that her office didn’t have a standard response to the issue. Very, very sloppy. Seems that part of the job is keeping your office support organized and responsive to voters. Kind of shocked, actually

    • At least you got a reply! I never hear from either Senator Murray or Senator Cantwell. Their staff just doesn’t bother.

  9. Both Senators are lightweight and always have been., they could hold their coats, Compared to Senators Magnuson and Jackson, neither could hold their coats. Both are safe and feel they simply don’t need to meet the voters. Both have outlived their usefulness. Shame!

  10. Washington is a one party state, plain and simple. Why should Murray or Cantwell bother to meet the plebs when they both know they have unassailable sinecures for life.

    Bravo to Joel Connelly for offering a tiny bit of tentative, mild criticism of that, but he has been a dedicated cheerleader for all dems for decades. Is there a problem? Maybe look in the mirror, Joel.

  11. Senator Murray also famously missed an important vote on establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection. She said only that ” an important family matter” kept her from voting. I found that very troubling.

  12. I’ll take the seniority over road trips any day 🙂 they are doing a great job for our state!

  13. COVID has discouraged large events like town halls. I was at a virtual event recently at which Senator Murray was sharp as a tack and quite humble in demeanor. She has proven to be a quiet, effective leader rather than a show-horse. Town halls are just one means of communicating with citizens, and maybe not the best if attended by a small slice of the public and dominated by intentionally disruptive people. It is a shame that we have gotten to the point where an incumbent Seattle Mayor is reluctant to run for re-election due to security concerns. Any thoughtful politician utilizes more than one way to communicate with constituents. Most know that town halls can be high on drama and low on actual constructive discourse. But Joel always raises good issues to ponder.

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