Filling Patty's Shoes

With the consummate timing of a successful politician, Patty Murray has missed the rain.

There's a hint of drizzle in the fall air as about a dozen sign-waving volunteers gather outside the south gate of Husky Stadium before the Arizona game. Most are soaked to the skin from the earlier downpour; the senator looks fresh in turtleneck, Gore-Tex—and, yes, her trademark tennis shoes.

Patrolling the sidewalks outside sports events is among the most thankless of campaign tasks, and few fans acknowledge Murray at first. Maybe they just don't notice her—in person, the senator is double-take small, a slight woman standing just over 5 feet. But after a few greetings, she starts warming to the task. One excited man rushes up and gives her a rib-cracking bear hug. A blond woman hurries over, slightly out of breath, and blurts out the closest thing to a speech at this entire political event: "I'm the biggest Republican. I've voted for so many Republicans, but if you don't beat Linda Smith, I'm just going to die!" Murray's sign wavers crack up.

The latecomers hurrying for their seats seem to be the friendliest group. "Nice tennis shoes," quips one passerby. A thirty-something fellow in rain gear spots the senator and detaches himself from the rush of fans to shake her hand. "Hi, I'm one of yours," he says to a beaming Murray.

So goes Patty Murray's re-election campaign, a low-key effort aimed at reminding her voters that 1992's "Mom in Tennis Shoes" hasn't let the other Washington change her. Her campaign mailer claims that she's "quietly and diligently" going about the business of representing the state. She also is quietly and diligently going about the business of campaigning, keeping a low profile and avoiding direct confrontation with Linda Smith, her notoriously iconoclastic opponent. In the last two weekends' worth of Seattle campaign appearances, Murray has dished up dinner at a Sierra Club fund raiser, spoken to participants at the Northwest AIDS Walk, and greeted Husky fans. Her television commercials are equally soft-sell—she makes cheerfully vague promises about improving education, and reminds voters that she's still in the minority in the Republican-controlled Senate by telling the sad tale of her teacher-hiring bill that fell just one vote short of passage.

It could just be an amusing coincidence, but at the Husky game, just as a rumor circulated that Linda Smith would be appearing with her supporters, the Murray group moved from the traditional campaign soapbox area in front of Hec Edmundson Pavilion to the stadium's side door.

While the mom in tennis shoes shows off her fancy footwork, the fiery Smith is fuming. Her post-primary-election challenge to Murray to schedule eight debates before the November 3 primary will probably result in just one head-to-head appearance, the traditional KING TV/Seattle Post-Intelligencer/Seattle University event (set for October 16). And even that debate had to be rescheduled from its usual Sunday-night slot, because the aggressively Christian Smith won't debate on Sundays. Smith's campaign says the incumbent is ducking its candidate. "They're very concerned, it seems, about [Murray] being opened up to questions about her record," says Jim Troyer, Smith campaign spokesperson. "The only things we see from her are television commercials paid for by special-interest money."

The Murray campaign says Smith is just grandstanding. Campaign spokesperson Rex Carney blasts Smith for her October 2 fax to the media listing the dates and locations of 10 "possible" debates. "It's nonsense," he says. "Their campaign has never contacted us about any of these debates." It should be mentioned that Smith's list of debate "possibilities" included an event set for the following day, three events that Murray had already declined because of scheduling conflicts, and two Sunday debates that Smith wanted rescheduled.

At first glance, Smith's campaign fund raising seems to have survived her bold pledge not to take political-action-committee donations. The most recent Federal Elections Commission numbers show Smith at $2.95 million to Murray's $3.57 million (nearly all of the fund-raising gap between the two is accounted for by Murray's $545,504 in PAC money). But Smith's resources have been drained by a bruising primary campaign against Seattle businessman Chris Bayley and her costly direct-mail fund-raising operation, and now Murray's cash-on-hand advantage is showing in her more plentiful television spots. In addition, the Smith camp is understandably testy about another Murray advantage: a round of Democratic Party ads lampooning Smith's votes on education issues. While a Republican Party­financed response technically wouldn't violate Smith's no-PAC-money vow, she can't risk losing the campaign-finance high ground by letting her party pay for a rebuttal this late in the battle. Even if she were to accept the party's help, it's uncertain that state and national Republican leaders—most of whom supported Bayley in the primary—would give Smith anything beyond their warm best wishes.

IF THEY HAVE NOTHING ELSE in common, Smith and Murray definitely share their status of once-unlikely political phenoms. Murray was a capable but little-known state senator from Shoreline when she jumped into the US Senate race in 1992, campaigning on a vow to bring the common sense of a mom, teacher, and former school board member to the cloistered halls of the Capitol. There was already a Democratic incumbent in the race, Sen. Brock Adams, and political pundits were only just floating their theory that 1992 would be the "Year of the Woman" in electoral politics. But even after a scandal over improper behavior toward women drove Adams out of the race, major party players and the media bypassed Murray and switched their allegiance to former US Rep. Don Bonker, a well-spoken moderate who had narrowly lost the Democratic primary for the Senate four years earlier. Warming to Murray's folksy appeal, the voters defied the experts and voted for her in droves. Murray's opponent in the final was US Rep. Rod Chandler, an undistinguished Republican whose major political asset was that he looked good in a suit. The next thing the experts knew, "Patty" was "Sen. Murray."

Smith's political ascendancy was slower, but no less impressive. A tax consultant infuriated by the Legislature's propensity to raise taxes, Smith won seats in the State House of Representatives (1983) and Senate (1987), both times dispatching Democratic incumbents. Along the way, she earned a reputation for her solid grassroots campaign organization—her rabid supporters became known as "Linda's Army." Smith's first work on her now-trademark issue of campaign finance reform took place in 1992 when she wrote the successful state Initiative 134. The following year, her Initiative 601 won approval, capping state spending and requiring voter approval for most tax hikes. Smith's most amazing political coup came in 1994, when the Republican front-runner in Southwest Washington's 3rd District dropped out of the race after damaging revelations by the media. Overnight, Linda's Army organized a campaign that won Smith the Republication nomination with 34,000 primary votes—unprecedented for a write-in candidate. Two months later, she won her seat in the US House of Representatives. In 1996, she barely avoided being swept under by the Democratic tide, winning re-election by a few votes.

Upon their arrival in Washington, DC, the two took divergent paths. Professional outsider Murray snagged a coveted insider's seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee (she also serves on the Budget Committee) and began learning how people get things done in the Capitol. Speaking over the phone from DC last week, Murray let it be known that she was just back from the White House, where she had watched President Clinton sign a higher-education funding bill that includes the substance of her Teacher Technology Training Act. As Murray described how she had tucked her $30 million funding request into the larger appropriations bill, her 1992 doubters might have been amazed at the fluency of her DC-speak. "I missed it in authorizations, but caught it in appropriations," she said.

Smith, meanwhile, had gone from a hero's welcome in the House to a fairly bitter parting. She voted against Newt Gingrich's reappointment as Speaker, likening the Georgian to a fat kid who sits at the table and eats everybody else's food. (She later apologized for her choice of words, saying she meant no personal slight to the well-fed Gingrich.) Despite a perfect voting rating from the Christian Coalition, she has angered it and other right-wing groups by adhering strictly to her principled stand against soft money: She consistently champions campaign-finance laws that would reduce their ability to funnel money to like-minded pols.

Some of Murray's original supporters obviously wish she'd turned out a bit more like her Republican rival. When she made her shocking rush into the Senate, it was without the burden of political debts carried by more experienced politicians. The self-proclaimed outsider's transition to inside player frustrated many of her early backers. Ed Murray (no relation), an early supporter who was himself elected to the Washington State Legislature in 1994, identifies with her transition. "I think that there is disappointment [in Murray] with some interest groups, but I have learned I will disappoint some interest groups whatever I do," he says. "The question is: Do you want to be effective or do you just want to be pure on the issue?"

MURRAY'S LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVES have been a mixed lot, most dealing with the types of issues you'd expect the Senate's self-designated normal person to be pursuing.

Although a common co-sponsor of legislation, Murray has been prime sponsor of only a few measures. This group includes her not-quite-successful amendment to a recent education bill to back the hiring of 100,000 new teachers nationwide (the effort that "lost by one vote") in hopes of bringing average K-12 classes down to 18 students. Although critics have snickered over its inclusion in her TV repertoire (especially as it was essentially an unfunded mandate the first time through), it's there for a reason: Murray is currently negotiating for a pledge that the hiring proposal will be funded if it gains congressional approval. "I have been working the phones here all week long," she reports. Needless to say, succeeding on that front would be quite an election-eve coup.

Most of her legislation comes with accompanying tales of constituents' woes. Murray tells of how she personally intervened to convince Safeco Insurance to pay a claim to a Seattle-area woman whose home was burned down by her abusive husband. As a consequence, her newest bill is the Battered Women Economic Security Act, a law that would keep battered women from being denied insurance coverage as "high-risk" clients, require employers to give time off to attend family court proceedings, and allow women being pursued by abusive spouses or boyfriends to change their Social Security number. Murray proposed an abbreviated version of this legislation earlier, adding, "I have now made it into a much bigger package, to give women economic security if they leave an abusive situation."

Murray also tells of the wife of a World War II veteran who was denied a military honor guard at her husband's funeral and told she should have given two weeks notice of the event. "Which is just, to me, really demeaning to someone who has served their country," she says. Murray added an amendment to a recent defense appropriations bill to allow National Guard personnel to serve in the honor guard role. She also contributed an amendment that grants appeal rights to veterans who are denied benefits.

Linda Lanham, legislative and political director for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751, tells of how Murray helped the union gain an annual tax exemption for participants in a Boeing continuing-education program. Without her intervention, Lanham says, workers would have had to pay tax on tuition the company pays for training programs. Murray recently arranged a three-year extension on the exemption. "We had called Sen. Gorton; he wouldn't even respond," says Lanham. "[Murray] was a lifesaver for us; she took it and made it happen. And she was always there—year in and year out."

Other Murray initiatives cited in her campaign are efforts to maintain state wheat sales to Pakistan despite sanctions against that country and to protect world markets for Washington apples. Her television commercials also tout her support for replacing portable classrooms with permanent buildings. The means to this end would be a measure Murray has worked on with Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Illinois) to allow local school districts to use tax-free bonds for construction projects, resulting in considerable cost savings. This bill also lost in the Senate by a close vote, says Murray. "I don't think we're going to get that this year, but it certainly is a priority of mine that I will continue to work on."

Murray's legislative accomplishments haven't impressed many in the Capitol. A writer for The Progressive included her on his list of the "Ten Dimmest Bulbs" in the 105th Congress—she was one of only two Democrats to make the list. Murray scoffs at the charge. "It is so typical insider Washington, DC," she says. "If you can't beat somebody on an issue, you say something nasty in a magazine."

But even her supporters admit that the Senator made little use of the Democratic majority she had her first two years in DC, before the Republicans took control of the Senate in 1994. "Like anybody when you go into elective office, there's a learning curve," says state Rep. Ed Murray. "I think she's a much better senator now than when she was first elected."

SO WHAT'S THE CHOICE for Washington voters? It's instructive that, two decades after the reign of the state's powerhouse Senate tag team of Warren Magnuson and Henry Jackson, Scoop 'n' Maggie nostalgia seems to be petering out. Maybe it's the poor quality of senatorial material we've had since then: the aforementioned Brock Adams, a past-his-prime Dan Evans, and onetime moderate-turned-conservative Slade Gorton. Murray is a squishy Seattle corporate-friendly liberal suck-up in the Adams tradition; Smith, despite her independent streak, is demonstrably more conservative than Gorton. Here are Smith and Murray on the issues:

Abortion. OK, Patty gets the first softball. She has earned perfect 100s from Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League throughout her term. Smith has gotten perfect zeros from the same two organizations and has voted to exclude any organization that performs or promotes abortion from receiving foreign-aid dollars, to prohibit the use of non-federal money to fund abortions for low-income Washington, DC, residents, and to maintain a ban on using federal funds for prison inmates' abortions.

Campaign Finance Reform. It's Linda's turn at bat. She has fought for the House versions of campaign finance reform legislation, including pushing for a (successful) vote on a House policy change banning gifts to legislators. She has fought for sharp limits on PAC spending and sponsored a bill to ban all soft money (funds donated to and distributed by political parties) in federal campaigns. Despite her obvious zeal, it should be noted that, like Murray, Smith isn't the prime sponsor of many of the bills with which she is identified, and that the most powerful enemies of campaign finance reform are Smith's Republican colleagues. Murray has consistently voted for campaign finance reform bills in the Senate, but Republican leaders won't even let the proposals come to a vote.

International trade. Here are the clearest differences between the two finalists, even if the trade issue proved a non-starter in Chris Bayley's primary challenge of Smith. Murray supports the entire Clinton trade package: NAFTA, GATT, fast-track trade authority for the president, and most-favored nation status for China (which Boeing has identified as a major potential market). Smith opposes the lot, citing potential job loss from the trade bills and human rights abuses by the Chinese government.

Workers' issues. Although many unions opposed the trade bills, they're backing Murray. "Overall, her record on working-family issues has been very good," says president Rick Bender of the Washington State Labor Council. Echoes Ron Judd, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council­AFL-CIO: "We want people to take a look at the records of Patty Murray and Linda Smith—all the votes." Smith has earned the ire of unions for backing a bill to allow some employers to substitute comp time for overtime pay. She also voted to limit the powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and has reserved a special place in her campaign finance efforts to block unions from using automatic assessments on workers' pay to fund political activities.

Gay rights. Smith has voted to ban adoptions in the District of Columbia by individuals not related to one another by blood or marriage and supported a bill denying funding for programs that protect gay federal workers from job discrimination. Although Murray's record on gay rights is far more liberal, she has earned the ire of many gay activists for voting for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriages (and exempting states from recognizing such marriages performed in other states). Murray says the Republicans introduced DOMA to poison public opinion against a pending employment discrimination law that included protections based on sexual orientation. "It was a cynical approach to stop us from passing [the other law] and it worked," she says sadly. Seattle City Council Member Tina Podlodowski quit as Clinton's state co-chair over DOMA and debated Murray several times on the issue, but says she hopes gay and lesbian voters will support the senator's re-election. "I'm not going to make my choice just based on one issue—I'm going to look at a person's whole record," says Podlodowski. "As far as Linda Smith, I think I agree with her about 0 percent of the time."

Environment. Smith argues that her environmental voting record has improved over the years, and she calls herself a "moderate" on environmental issues. But she still made the national "Dirty Dozen" list of the League of Conservation Voters for voting to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's enforcement authority and to cut federal environmental funding. "I would risk to say that re-election of Sen. Murray is critical to the environment in Washington state," says John Leary, executive director of the Washington Wilderness Coalition. He cites Murray's work to keep federal protections for the Hanford Reach, change forest service management practices, and encourage salmon enhancement efforts.

Intangibles. Smith takes the early lead here. She's gutsy, highly principled, and unafraid to speak her mind on unpopular issues—imagine the looks she got from the Southern Republicans when she took on tobacco subsidies. She's also well spoken and a quick study on issues. "Linda will stand on principle even if that means going against her own party leadership at times," says campaign spokesman Troyer. "People in Washington [state] have had a very strong history of supporting strong independent voices." A good point, but Washington voters have always looked for balance in their US Senate delegation, and it's hard to believe such a moderate state would send two conservative Republicans to Washington, DC. "Having Sen. Murray as a counterweight to Sen. Gorton has been a real key to holding back some of the more radical proposals the right-wing Republicans have proposed," argues Leary.

Murray backers argue that the sensitive, caring mom image is actually the real Patty, and voters can't afford to lose her human touch in the Senate. "She doesn't fit our view in our mind's eye of what the powerful United States senator is supposed to look like," says Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen. But, of more than 200 women candidates Allen has dealt with, Murray "is among the most personal and least compromised. She's pretty much the woman we sent back there in tennis shoes."

BUT IF SINCERITY IS Murray's strong suit, her lack of campaign-trail sophistication makes her politically vulnerable. The Republicans were unable to coax their most poised potential candidate—state Rep. Jennifer Dunn—into the race, but Smith definitely has her strong points as a campaigner. Even when responding to tough questions, Smith never loses her perma-smile and eerie sense of cool. Murray is far less conscious of her facial expressions, and as a result tends to look nervous or puzzled during pauses in conversation. Smith is a superb stump speaker with carefully scripted humorous digs and calculated cadences. Murray still hasn't quite gotten the hang of connecting with a crowd; at the Northwest AIDS Walk, she stepped on her applause lines and never came close to matching the energy level of the previous speaker, King County Executive Ron Sims.

But everyone with a story of a memorable Patty Murray speech recalls the senator's skill at relating heartfelt stories about real people (often members of her own family) and impressing listeners with her sincerity. "Sometimes she doesn't always reach people on one wavelength—she reaches them on a personal level," says Allen. Even if the incumbent wouldn't fare well in a head-to-head debate with Smith, the challenger seems to have bobbled her chance to get more than the one match-up scheduled—and she hasn't even managed to tar Murray with the charge of avoiding her.

It is hard not to view the difficulty in getting Smith and Murray on the same debate stage as an attempt by Murray to avoid confrontation with a charismatic candidate who has a proven track record of beating (saner) favorites. Given Smith's popularity and the enthusiasm of her faithful, her support has a surprising tendency to slip below the normal political radar—up until primary election day (to cite the most recent example), polls were showing her with a slim lead over Bayley, whom she beat by a 2-to-1 margin. Still, while the latest polls showing Murray with a 12-point lead may be overstating the case, it's instructive to note that no significant primary poll ever showed Smith trailing Bayley, and no poll taken since then has shown Murray trailing Smith. It is worth remembering that Ellen Craswell—like Smith, a devout Christian and hard-core conservative—lost her race for governor two years ago by 20 percentage points. This race, like that one, is a battle between a pro-business liberal Democrat and a Christian Coalition Republican (Smith's several independent stands notwithstanding); so it could be that Smith's support doesn't show on the radar because it just isn't there.

 
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