We weren’t buzzed by a rattlesnake, but a hike in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River some years ago left everyone covered waist-to-feet with cheatgrass. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was in her trademark tennis shoes, seeking to show off land she hoped that President Clinton would soon designate a monument under the Antiquities Act.
Murray is still in the world’s greatest deliberative body. After 30 years, she wants to stay there. A onetime Shoreline preschool teacher, Murray finds herself being pummeled by Republican opponent Tiffany Smiley. Murray is depicted as a “professional politician,” no longer the “mom in tennis shoes,” and the ads blame her for just about every societal problem save for wheat rust.
Smiley is getting around and gaining ground by claiming Murray does nothing for the state. The claim is a lie, but the senator’s campaign has underplayed her accomplishments. The Murray folk set out early to define Smiley as an anti-abortion extremist, and they have stuck with this approach after a successful primary election. A well-coached Smiley has learned to slide off excesses of MAGA Republicanism.
My favorite image of the incumbent is one of Murray with feet on the ground in blue jeans, trooping through corners of Washington proposed for preservation or development. She delivered on Hanford, the last un-dammed stretch of Columbia River and spawning grounds for the river’s last big wild salmon run. Also, she guided creation of the 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness in Snohomish County, even getting blessing from the Bush Administration. She midwifed additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and protection of the Middle Fork-Snoqualmie River, closest mountain valley to Seattle.
A snarky evaluation of Congress in Washingtonian magazine once derided Murray’s attire and gave her a “no rocket scientist” award. It missed the mark on both counts. Fashion is an encumbrance when you’re in the rain and mud visiting where three forks of the Snoqualmie River come together. And Murray is possessed of unusual smarts, an instinct for the right time and path to get something done.
The prints from Murray’s tennis shoes show up in a variety of places. Remember when Sound Transit’s light rail service to the airport was going to terminate in Tukwila? As a power on the Appropriations Committee, Murray fought for money to take it to Sea-Tac (and now beyond). With schools stifled by testing requirements of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law, Murray and GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander teamed up to successfully rewrite the law.
With control of Congress split, and Murray chairing the Senate Budget Committee, she negotiated a spending agreement with House budget boss Paul Ryan that kept the federal government open. Ovarian cancer was topic of the “Gentle Lady’s” first Senate speech, evoking the health struggles of friends. She has spent three decades fighting to boost research dollars for diseases impacting women.
It helps to know how to work the levers. Although slowed by diabetes in his last term, Sen. Warren Magnuson found a legislative vehicle (the obscure Marine Mammals Protection Act) to sneak through a “little amendment” that banned oil supertankers from Puget Sound. That provoked Gov. Dixy Lee Ray into calling Maggie “a dictator.”
When the 2000-01 Seattle newspaper strike turned nasty, Murray found a topnotch federal mediator who helped settle it. The Seattle Times editorial page has since endorsed Republicans for the Senate but has stood by Murray. (It likely helps that publisher Frank Blethen is a fellow WSU graduate.)
After the Oso landslide, arch-conservative colleague GOP Rep. Doc Hastings asked how to help communities cut off by closure of S.R. 530. Murray suggested preserving the lookout atop Green Mountain, a major draw for hikers. Doc made it happen as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. That maneuver set the stage for cooperation on Alpine Lakes and Middle Fork. Doc was rewarded with an amendment securing Tri-Cities folk continued road access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain.
The Murray record is missing in this year’s consultant-driven campaign. Nasty TV spots win elections, and our airwaves are filled with scripted hit pieces. We no longer have a competitive Northwest news corps to sort out the work horses (such as Murray) and show horses of Congress.
Murray is a member of the Senate’s Democratic leadership. She is also 72 years old. A protective cocoon tends to surround senior U.S. Senators, particularly in times when a slipup or open microphone can end a career. It became impossible to get a schedule out of Murray’s office, and difficult to find non-staged events, during my last years at SeattlePI.com “Thank you for reaching out,” the press office would respond, and then stonewall the request.
A Bellingham attorney called last week, riled at the Murray campaign asking for money after a long absence of communication. He had once raised money for Murray, an easy task given that she was around and accessible, with a savvy aide in Everett troubleshooting watch on the northwest corner of the state.
My benchmark is the Pacific County Democrats’ crab feed, longest continuous political event in Washington until the COVID-19 pandemic. Delicious eats, speechmaking, plus an old-fashioned action. Sen. Maria Cantwell spooned out potato salad in the food line while U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer plunked crabs onto plates.
Murray never showed up and didn’t send a statement for a couple of years. By contrast, with a Monday stop-off in her bus tour, Tiffany Smiley paid her fourth visit to Pacific County. My bet is that she’ll carry this historically Democratic county, which once went for George McGovern.
I voted for Murray and hope she survives. Why? Because she delivers for folks who work hard and play by the rules, and who love the outdoors. Lately, she helped with legislation that caps insulin costs for seniors, and (finally) allows Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices with Big Pharma. The anti-Murray TV spots are paid for largely by those who have reaped Republican tax cuts in this new Gilded Age. Republicans aren’t into capping drug costs.
I also hope to see Murray emerge from the cocoon. Win or lose, she will hopefully put on tennis shoes to celebrate one more environmental achievement: The Senate is (one hopes) set to pass Wild Olympics legislation. The senator and staff need to do more reaching out, from misty Pacific County to dry places with cheatgrass.
Even though she has the prime Senate floor seat behind Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Patty Murray remains rooted here. She’s a Coug.