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Monday, October 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:26 A.M.
No-frills style belies Murray's tenacity, competitive streak
By Alex Fryer
If Patty Murray wins re-election Nov. 2, she would be the first senator from Washington state to earn a third consecutive term since the late Henry "Scoop" Jackson.
But as her seniority and clout would rise with re-election, there's no doubt Murray's "mom in tennis shoes" style would remain.
Though the Democrat has been in politics for nearly two decades, Murray, 54, still sees issues through the lens of a preschool teacher, a job she held before entering public life. She often cites decades-ago experience as a hospital volunteer, or working mother, or daughter of a disabled World War II veteran.
To some in D.C., this homespun sensibility comes off as disingenuous, even naive. Earlier this year, Washingtonian magazine labeled Murray among the "no rocket scientists" in Congress, based on its annual survey of congressional staff members.
Murray's Republican opponent, Spokane congressman George Nethercutt, has based one of his main campaign ads on Murray's oft-criticized comments in 2002 about Osama bin Laden to a high-school group.
A member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls the government's checkbook, she brought record levels of federal transportation dollars home to the state and raised $143 million in contributions for Senate Democratic campaigns two years ago.
She never wavered in her support of a controversial third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and she stuck with Sound Transit when the politics looked dicey, helping the agency eventually to score $500 million to build light rail.
And when it comes to her votes on Iraq, Murray has no regrets. She was one of only 23 senators to vote against giving Bush the authority to use force in Iraq but she later voted for $87 billion in war spending.
"What I bring is a common-sense, real-family perspective that is needed if you want policies in national government to work for everyday people," she said.
The mom-in-tennis-shoes is not a campaign theme, she said. "It's what I do every day."
Oct. 5 was an ordinary day in D.C. in the life of Patty Murray.
She traveled from her Capitol Hill apartment and arrived in her Senate offices by about 8 a.m. It was Tuesday, so her first meeting was with Senate Democratic leaders.
This day, while Congress was focused on intelligence reform and corporate taxes, Murray's office was consumed by another development: the rumblings of Mount St. Helens.
Her staff already had researched the $1 billion aid package put together by former Sen. Warren Magnuson after the 1980 explosion. Murray wanted to persuade her colleagues to send federal money quickly if the mountain erupted.
In the senators-only elevator, Murray bumped into fellow Appropriations Committee member Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who asked about "Mount St. Helena."
Murray replied she wanted to talk soon about government aid.
"Got it," replied Murray.
This is how congressional appropriators talk to each other, helping find federal money to solve home-state problems.
By most measures, Murray is good at it.
Last year, Murray secured $243 million in transportation and other funding for the state, and she's letting voters know about it in a spate of radio ads touting federal projects in 10 counties.
The money included $3 million for a proposed Seattle trolley, $5 million for clean-air Metro buses and $20 million for Boeing to develop an improved air-traffic-management system.
On a national level, she worked hard to get money to keep Amtrak moving, a legislative accomplishment due in part to her good relationship with Sen. Richard Shelby of Georgia, a conservative Republican who leads the transportation appropriations subcommittee.
Despite ideological and party differences, the two lawmakers work well together.
"People said 'Patty Murray is liberal and Shelby is conservative. They're going to clash,' " said Tom Young, Shelby's former chief of staff, in an interview with The Seattle Times last year. "That didn't happen."
Murray also has made foreign trade a priority, backing normalized relations with China and challenging European subsidies to Airbus.
In 2001, the Senate narrowly defeated Murray's initiative to set aside $7.1 billion to hire more teachers and reduce class size, one of the issues she has touted since coming to Congress.
Last year, Murray tried to shed her liberal label by putting out an unusual news release.
"Murray," her office announced, "was not among the top twenty most liberal senators," citing rankings by the D.C. political magazine National Journal.
In the magazine's latest ranking this year, though, she came awfully close: 21st.
She voted against Bush's $350 billion tax cut but supported his Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which authorized selective logging on 20 million acres.
Pro-choice groups give Murray a perfect rating. She joined 44 other senators to oppose Bush's Medicare prescription-drug bill.
Before the vote to authorize military force in Iraq, Murray said, she attended private briefings with White House and Pentagon officials and spoke with colleagues about Iraq's weapons program and potential threat.
But it was during a speech before a group of Seattle high-school students when Murray says she figured out her position.
"I had not made up my mind, and the kids asked me," Murray said. "And I realized as I was talking with them that, at the end of the day, I was much more confident in saying why I felt a vote to go to war in Iraq was not a good thing."
Despite her opposition, Murray later voted for $87 billion to pay for the war, saying once the war was under way, she had a responsibility to support the troops. "That comes from my [volunteer] experience on the psychiatric ward of the veterans hospital" in 1972, she said.
In December 2002, Murray was speaking to another group of school kids in Vancouver, Wash., when she made comments that have been used by her opponents ever since.
Trying to explain why Osama bin Laden might be popular in the Arab world while Americans were not, she said he was "building schools, building roads, building infrastructure, building day-care facilities, building health-care facilities, and the people are extremely grateful. We have not done that."
Murray's words sparked a fierce reaction from conservative and other critics who said she didn't have her facts straight. Nethercutt uses video of the speech in his campaign and ridicules her thinking that bin Laden, an Islamic fundamentalist who believes women should not work outside the home, would have built day-care centers.
Murray has refused to retract her statements. "Could I have phrased it better? Of course, but I was riffing in front of a group of high-school students, and it has been taken and detailed. Is that fair to a politician who speaks to hundreds and hundreds of people? I don't think so."
To determine any senator's priorities, look at committee assignments.
Murray serves on four, all emphasizing domestic issues: Appropriations; Budget; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; and Veterans' Affairs.
Most observers agree Appropriations wields the greatest power because it doles out federal dollars. Considering two committee members are in their 80s and a third is retiring, Murray's clout will almost certainly grow if she's re-elected.
But don't expect her to assume a national presence.
Her family lives in Washington state, and she commutes nearly every weekend, declining invitations to the Sunday morning talk shows. She allows other senators to outline the broad positions of her party.
If she returns to Congress for six more years, Murray will begin to focus on building a lasting legacy, her friends say.
Her congressional staff already meets to brainstorm the future of the state and how Murray may play a part in it, away from the spotlight.
"I've been underestimated by people my entire adult life," she said. "You can get an awful lot done if people aren't paying attention to you."
Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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