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Monday, October 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:31 AM

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Election 2006

Cantwell learns key to Senate success: Keep it simple

Seattle Times Washington bureau

One of a series of articles exploring the lives and careers of Washington state's candidates for U.S. Senate.

WASHINGTON — Just after Hurricane Katrina last year, Sen. Maria Cantwell took a stand against gasoline price gouging.

Standing over a strip of dried grass at a gas station near the U.S. Capitol, Cantwell faced the TV news cameras and decried "skyrocketing gas prices." It's a crime, she said, raising her voice above the deafening traffic.

Cars careening past slowed down. Heads turned her way.

But they weren't looking at Cantwell. They were staring at the woman next to her — fellow Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton.

That's how much of Cantwell's six years in the U.S. Senate has gone: Hard work on important issues, only to be upstaged by bigger celebrities.

How interest groups rate Cantwell


Interest groups rated Sen. Maria Cantwell based on how consistently she supports their causes. These are the 2005 ratings.

League of Conservation Voters: 90 percent

National Taxpayers Union: 17 percent

American for Tax Reform: 25 percent

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: 56 percent

Disabled American Veterans: 92 percent

National Education Association: 100 percent

Citizens Against Government Waste: 38 percent

Service Employees International Union: 85 percent

Source: Project Vote Smart

During her early Senate years, Cantwell's visibility was low at home, and lower still on Capitol Hill. Known as a wonk, she found herself lost in the shadow of Washington's senior senator, Democrat Patty Murray.

But more recently, Cantwell has used her seat on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee to chalk up victories on environmental and energy issues she now highlights in her campaign against Republican challenger Mike McGavick.

"Maria Cantwell has been a remarkable senator for the state of Washington, all the more so for being a freshman senator in a minority party," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who made Cantwell the Democrats' point person on energy issues last year.

Reid credits Cantwell for fighting Enron's attempt to collect millions in fees from Snohomish County utility ratepayers, winning money for the biofuel industry and nearly passing a bill to outlaw gas price gouging.

Just before last Christmas, Cantwell led Senate Democrats in their fight to keep Congress from opening the Arctic wilderness to oil drilling.

"The leadership has been of great assistance to her," said Jennifer Duffy, who rates Senate races for The Cook Report. "She did get this gift of being able to move some of the energy stuff, and that has helped a great deal.

"It has given her stuff to put in ads," Duffy said.

Early burdens

Cantwell came into office in 2001 burdened with a narrow victory over incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton, campaign debt and many promises.

Her campaign focused on lowering the cost of higher education and overhauling the way campaigns are financed.

But the high cost of college had little traction in Congress, and campaign-finance reform was being steered by more powerful and media-savvy senators, including Republican John McCain of Arizona.

Her first committee choice, Commerce, was denied. She got Energy and Natural Resources, Indian Affairs, and Judiciary. She's not a lawyer, though, and her hopes for impact on Judiciary — a panel rife with righteous attorneys used to playing judge and jury — faded fast.

During John Ashcroft's attorney-general confirmation hearings in 2001, Cantwell surprised him and her colleagues by asking Ashcroft if he would support "roadless national forests."

Ashcroft said he would, but she voted against him anyway.

Cantwell was becoming living proof of the D.C. maxim: Obscure issues equals obscurity.

That began to change when she started railing against an energy giant about to dissolve in scandal.

Cantwell set her sights on Enron in 2001 — long before most other politicians weighed in. She and others blamed the company for jacking up energy prices in the Northwest and California during the infamous power crises.

When the media blitz died down two years later, after Enron's collapse amid charges of fraud and excessive greed, Cantwell continued dogging the company.

Enron and its Wall Street creditors wanted the Snohomish County Public Utilities District to pay roughly $125 million for cancelling its electricity contracts with the company. The PUD said the contracts shouldn't be enforced because of Enron's wrongdoing.

Cantwell took up the PUD's cause.

Politicos and lobbyists wrote off her crusade; her staff thought she'd gone down a well. Other utilities facing similar Enron fees paid up.

But Cantwell won a Senate amendment that could effectively stop Enron from collecting the fees.

And then, in an all-night session on Capitol Hill in July 2005, she persuaded the powerful chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to block Enron's efforts to kill the amendment.

"I am tenacious. I never let go," she said.

The PUD may not be off the hook, however. A federal judge in New York ruled last month that Cantwell's amendment may be unconstitutional.

Cantwell scored more political points with her campaign against gas price gouging, as prices at the pump soared above $3 a gallon after Hurricane Katrina. And she fought a proposal introduced last November by Sen. Ted Stevens, the brass-knuckled Republican from Alaska, to allow more oil tankers into Puget Sound.

Her Republican opponent, McGavick, also takes credit for helping persuade Stevens to drop his tanker proposal.

The recent plummet in gas prices doesn't change Cantwell's opinion of the energy industry. It is just another form of market manipulation, Cantwell said, designed to save Republicans in this year's election.

The middle ground

Political columnists have criticized Cantwell as too cautious. Outside of energy and environmental issues, she hugs the middle ground.

She voted against the nominations of both of President Bush's Supreme Court nominees but declined to filibuster against either. She angered anti-war Democrats by refusing to repudiate her 2002 vote authorizing the Iraq invasion.

In committee hearings, she "war games" her questions in advance, determining which queries senior committee members will raise first so she can make a different point when her turn comes.

Senate aides say they like her willingness to delve into policy details, unlike many in Congress. But that sometimes doesn't translate into clear-cut positions or proposals that capture the public's attention.

Of the state's senators, Murray has been described as "the heart," while Cantwell, less warm, is "the head."

Cantwell acknowledges one failure based on her wonkish ways.

In 2004, she lost a tough fight over cleanup at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, because, she says, she didn't explain the issue simply to her colleagues.

Rather than removing some nuclear waste, the Department of Energy wanted to bury it, which it could do by classifying the waste as low-level. Cantwell introduced an amendment to oppose that.

She thought her side would win on its merits.

But too late, she concluded that she should have made the complicated issue sound simple — skip the technical "vitrification" discussion of turning nuclear sludge into glass and instead work on sound bites.

"I should have made it more of a media issue," she said.

Her amendment lost 48-48.

Cantwell left the Judiciary Committee in 2003 for the seat she coveted on Commerce, which oversees the mammoth telecommunications industry, along with fisheries and other issues important to the Northwest.

That was a watershed year for media ownership and Internet issues, with a highly controversial vote by the Federal Communications Commission to expand big media's ownership of local TV and newspapers. Cantwell had campaigned to be the senator from high tech, capitalizing on her background as a vice president at the Internet company RealNetworks.

She sided with Democrats against media consolidation, but her lack of input in hearings over the issue led some reporters to dub Cantwell "Can't Talk." Her staff says she focused on Coast Guard and fisheries matters.

This year, she came late to another major telecom frenzy, the net neutrality debate over consumers' unencumbered access to Internet sites. Liberal columnist Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge asked, "Where is Cantwell?"

Lessons learned

Shortly after joining the Senate, Cantwell reached out to Hawaii's senior Democrat, Sen. Daniel Inouye, and he took her under his wing.

Inouye said he offered this advice: "Don't get angry when you lose. Come off the floor ready to go back tomorrow and work with the same people who voted against you."

Cantwell says she understands.

"I've learned that not every victory that you want happens on the day that you want it," Cantwell said. "Sometimes you just have to hang on."

Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or amundy@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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