WASHINGTON - When Patty Murray arrived in the Senate nearly 18 years ago, the rap on her in the nation's capital was that she was no Warren Magnuson.
Well, Murray may have the last laugh. She now has Maggie’s desk.
As desks go, the sturdy walnut desk in Murray’s Senate office isn’t that impressive. But as Murray seeks her fourth term, it’s a symbol of how far she’s come.
Underestimated from the start, Murray’s grown into a formidable politician who doggedly defends the interests of Washington state and has risen in the ranks to become a senior appropriator delivering billions of federal dollars back home.
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But in an election year in which Republicans hope to make big gains by portraying Democrats as overreaching, reckless spenders, Murray’s leadership position and earmark prowess is being used against her. She is facing her toughest re-election campaign since being elected in 1992, a nationally watched race that could even determine whether her party keeps control of the Senate.
THE GHOST OF MAGGIE
In her early days, Murray bristled at comparisons to Magnuson.
Known affectionately as Maggie, Magnuson was a revered former senator from Washington who served more than four decades. Magnuson stayed mostly in the shadows, preferring the “kitchen work” of politics rather than the spotlight. Yet even in his later years, Magnuson wielded enormous power. He was the type of lawmaker who could limp onto the Senate floor, mumble something about the catastrophic 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, and when the gavel came down, $1 billion in emergency aid was headed to Southwest Washington.
Magnuson was branch water, bourbon and politics served up at nightly gatherings known as the “board of education,” along with Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson.
Murray campaigned as the “mom in tennis shoes,” and spoke on the Senate floor about growing up as one of seven children of a disabled World War II vet who ran a five-and-dime store in Bothell.
Murray’s no longer haunted by the Magnuson legacy.
“Do I look like Maggie?” Murray said with a laugh. “What is important is I fight for my state. I come here to give a voice to those that don’t have one.”
Murray serves in a different era. The earmarks so loathed by some today are the same as the old-fashioned pork Magnuson built his reputation on.
“I think Patty Murray has become a modern day Warren Magnuson,” said Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state Republican Party who is now a political analyst. “She is an old-fashioned, bring-home-the-bacon liberal, and while that seems anachronistic in today’s world, she is proud of it. She doesn’t run from her record.”
Murray is a “lawmaker’s lawmaker” who works quietly behind the scenes, Vance said. The Republican partisan also called Murray a “tough, experienced” politician who isn’t shy about pulling out the brass knuckles.
Despite Vance’s comments, every six years when she runs for re-election, questions surface about whether Murray is tough enough. Her record shows a senator who’s never hesitant about tangling openly with her colleagues or cabinet secretaries or delivering straight talk to a president.
For months, Murray had been hearing from small-business owners who couldn’t get the credit they needed to survive or expand. During a recent visit by President Barack Obama to the state, Murray raised the issue. Two weeks later, Obama put small business relief at the top of his agenda.
When the Washington National Guard’s 81st Armored Brigade was deploying to Iraq, Murray told then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they lacked such critical equipment as body armor and flashlights. Rumsfeld didn’t like it.
When the Bush administration was slow to release port security money, Murray blocked the nomination of a friend of the president to be deputy director of the White House budget office. She threatened to cut $125 million in funding for the Food and Drug Administration after it dragged its feet on over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill during the George W. Bush administration. She’s openly criticized both Democratic and Republican secretaries of the Department of Veterans Affairs for billion-dollar funding shortages and proposals that would make veterans pay more for health care.
Murray calls it her “angry mom” voice.
“Ask my kids about it,” she said. “There is a line they knew they shouldn’t cross.”
The senator’s staff said they’d never seen her angrier than when in the summer of 2009 the federal Transportation Department announced $60 million in grants for the nation’s ferry systems. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee, Murray had included the $60 million in a massive economic recovery bill assuming Washington state, with the largest ferry system in the country, would receive significant funding.
Instead, it was awarded $750,000.
Aides say she “muscled” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a phone call the next day, and hours later the department coughed up an extra $7.6 million for the state. LaHood now clearly understands that Murray controls his department’s roughly $70 billion annual budget.
Murray said that dealing with LaHood is just part of her job. But others say it was a classic example of the influence Murray has amassed.
“She is the ferry godmother,” said Tom Lovain, a D.C. lobbyist who represents the Washington State Ferry System.
‘QUEEN OF PORK’
Some have dubbed Murray the “queen of pork.” Taxpayers for Common Sense, a citizen watchdog group, said Murray had nearly $210 million in earmarks in the fiscal 2010 budget, ranking her ninth among all senators.
“I wasn’t elected to do earmarks, I was elected to get things done,” she said.
Being an appropriator comes with a certain attitude.
When the Senate’s leading anti-earmark crusader took to the Senate floor in the fall of 2005, he sought to strip down an appropriations bill that included $500,000 for a Seattle sculpture garden. But Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., had a bigger target – the $230 million for Sen. Ted Stevens’ infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Murray and Stevens, R-Alaska, had developed a working relationship over the years. It was Stevens, after he lost his bid for re-election, who gave Murray the Magnuson desk he’d been using. (Stevens died in August in a plane crash in Alaska.)
Murray came to the Senate floor not only to defend the sculpture garden money but, by inference, Stevens’ bridge. She also issued a warning to her colleagues.
“As the old saying goes, ‘What is good for the goose is good for the gander.’” Murray said. “And I tell my colleagues, if we start cutting funding for individual projects, your project may be next.”
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said it was a sign Murray had truly become an appropriator.
“She crossed the Rubicon,” Ellis said.
Though earmarks have become a major campaign issue, Matt Barreto, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington, said people aren’t necessarily opposed to them. Barreto said his polling has found that people like federal money coming into their communities for parks, roads, and other projects and programs and dislike seeing it go elsewhere.
Even though people have looked, Baretto said, no one has found a Murray earmark that benefited a large campaign contributor. Murray has also been able to secure earmarks even when the Democrats weren’t in power.
“They don’t hand them out like candy, you have to work for them,” he said. “This suggests she must have influence with her colleagues.”
At first glance, Murray’s decision to join Democratic leadership seemed uncharacteristic for a senator who never seemed to relish the power politics on Capitol Hill. But Murray saw the leadership track as a way to become more effective while giving her state a seat at the table. Her colleagues also saw it as a way to bring needed perspective.
“There are plenty of white, male lawyers in the U.S. Senate, but very few 5-foot tall former teachers,” said Todd Webster, Murray’s former communications director.
Murray’s entry into the leadership came in 2000 when she was selected to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. She had previously been vice chair, which has traditionally been a stepping stone to the chairmanship.
During her two years in the post, Murray raised a then-record $158 million. But despite her efforts, Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2002. Even though the “long knives” were out following the loss, Murray wasn’t blamed and then Democratic Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota appointed her to a four-member leadership committee to develop policy.
In 2004, Murray was named an assistant floor leader, and in 2006 she was elected conference secretary, the No. 4 leadership post.
Critics say the seat at the table hasn’t been worth much and that she has become part of a cozy leadership club head by Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California.
Murray counters that she and Reid differ on such significant issues as the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump in Nevada, gun control and abortion rights.
“Harry Reid understands I speak for my state and for people who need a voice,” she said.
The leadership post allowed her to engineer passage of a bill that created the first wilderness area in Washington state in 20 years, help broker a compromise in the health care reform bill involving federal funding for abortions and clear up inequities in a Medicare reimbursement formula that had long punished doctors and health care providers in Washington state.
“Reid has a lot of people in his face,” Murray said. “But he listens to me and trusts me.”
But Republicans have sought to make a campaign issue of her relationship with Reid.
“Being part of the establishment is not a plus in this environment,” said Nathan Gonzales, political editor for the Rothenberg Report. “But she wouldn’t have a slight lead in the polls if that was the defining issue in the campaign.”
INSIDE OR OUTSIDE
If Murray is an insider securing earmarks, sitting at the leadership table as No. 4 in Senate Democrat leadership and going down to the White House to meet with Obama, she doesn’t act like it.
The senator is rarely on national television. Even when she was chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she didn’t appear regularly on the Sunday talk shows. Most nights she heads back to her Capitol Hill apartment to study briefing books rather than hit the nightly fundraisers and receptions.
“In the early days, she would help her children with their homework using a fax machine,” said Ben McMakin, Murray’s former legislative director.
Republican Vance said Murray has been lucky.
In 1992, Murray rode Bill Clinton’s momentum to her first term. In 1998, the public was upset with the Clinton impeachment proceeding and Murray was re-elected. In 2004, President George W. Bush’s unpopularity helped Murray win another term, Vance said.
Murray has faced formidable opponents.
“People think she can be beat, but she has won time and again,” said George Nethercutt, who Murray beat by 12 percentage points in 2004. “I wouldn’t bet against her in this race even in a Republican year.”
Les Blumenthal: 202-383-0008 firstname.lastname@example.org