DRESSED IN AN ELEGANT cardinal suit and beaming, Maria Cantwell looks like a movie star at a Machinists union get-out-the-vote rally as she floats to the stage on a wave of chants: "Maria! Maria! Maria!"
"This race is down to a dead heat, and we're two weeks away," announces Cantwell, in a frank assessment of her campaign for Slade Gorton's US Senate seat. "I need your help." Without a pause, shouts arise from the crowd of several hundred. "You got it!"
Tonight, with AFL-CIO national president John Sweeney on hand, Cantwell looks like a winner. And plenty more big names are arriving to bolster that impression. The next night, she's staging events with Gloria Steinem and campaign finance reform guru Senator Russ Feingold. Five women senators are flying in to be by her side a few days later. Over the weekend she will link arms with Rob Reiner and Martin Sheen at Gas Works Park.
Cantwell's star status is further reinforced by the number of national journalists flying in to speak to this high-tech millionaire who might take out a veteran senator in a cliffhanger of a race. At the union rally were Washington Post pundit David Broder and a CNN reporter who followed her around for a full week. A couple of days later, writers from The Economist and the Financial Times lined up for interviews.
A Gorton campaign event the same week has a very different feel. On a morning-long tour of schools to talk about education, Gorton wanders into Everett's Mariner High School without a noticeable entourage of either staff or press, a blue V-neck sweater covering his skeletal frame. He approaches people before they notice him. "Hi, I'm Slade Gorton," he says.
There is no way around it, the 72-year-old Gorton looks old, even if he is still one of the sharpest minds in Congress. His head wobbles slightly as he talks. Always a stiff speaker, he nevertheless exudes a grandfatherly air as he tells four classes of students gathered in the school library that they can ask him anything, whether about his "Straight A" education bill or about "what kind of life senators lead."
They grill him, ignoring his life and honing in on his bill, which would let local schools—rather than the federal government—decide how to spend federal dollars, provided the schools are able to raise test scores in five years. Who's to say schools won't spend the money on swimming pools if given complete freedom? Why does he think money alone will help raise test scores? So if schools can't raise test scores after five years, they go back to an old, failing system? Anyone who thinks a school visit a fluff event—and a lot of press do judging by their absence—should sit in on one.
But the press is largely following a different story line, one that revolves around Cantwell's money and New Economy credentials. These are not the most revealing attributes. Cantwell, the 42-year-old daughter of an Indiana union leader, is a diaper Democrat who grew up to be a career politician. She served in the state Legislature and went on to Congress for one term before being swept out of office by the Gingrich revolution. She fell back on her marketing skills, which she plied, naturally enough in the Pacific Northwest, at a high-tech firm blessed—for a while, at least—by a surreally exuberant stock market. Even while she was socking away millions, I ran into her at Sears and Kenny Rogers Roasters, hardly the hangouts of the jet set.
Though she undoubtedly learned a lot from her five-year run at RealNetworks and has issued a platform on Internet privacy, technology has not played a big role in the campaign, other than to inspire a contest over who can be the biggest sycophant for Microsoft. (The winner: Gorton. The senator disclosed at a campaign event last week that he has gone as far as speaking to presidential hopeful George W. Bush about getting a new attorney general who will "abandon the idea that Microsoft will be broken up" in the antitrust case.)
Undeniably, the millions Cantwell made off technology have mattered enormously in this election. "She's outspending us," says Cynthia Bergman, Gorton's press aide, when asked why she thinks this is the closest race since the senator was defeated by Brock Adams in 1986. Bergman said the last time Gorton was outspent was in his very first Senate race in 1980, against the venerable Warren Magnuson; Gorton nevertheless won. Most of the $6.8 million in Cantwell's war chest has come from her own checkbook. Gorton has had to earn his $5.2 million the hard way.
Those figures don't give the whole picture. Cantwell maintains that Gorton is actually outspending her because of what she estimates is $4 million in soft money spent by the Republican Party on his behalf. Cantwell has sworn off both soft and PAC money in order to apply her belief in campaign finance reform. Still, Cantwell's personal fortune has, at the very least, put her in the same league with Gorton, a fund-raising king.
That has left her open to charges of trying to buy her election. But she has done more than pour her millions into television and sit back expectantly. Early on, Cantwell seemed like a candidate who might do just that. She dangled her toe in the water for ages before jumping into the primary, annoying some who thought her too haughty to get down in the trenches and campaign. Once jumping in, though, Cantwell proved herself a hard worker, attending countless parades, rallies, and meetings in every county in the state. Unions and others who declined to endorse her in the primary have been impressed. "She has stepped up to the plate," says Ron Judd, regional director of the AFL-CIO. "She understands the importance of getting out to communities and talking to them and listening."
WHETHER OR NOT she is bringing an inspiring message is open to debate. "When she's on the stump, she offers nothing but attacks on Slade," says Gorton press aide Cynthia Bergman. "She has no new ideas. I would argue that Slade has the new ideas, on social security, on prescription drugs, on tax reform, on education, on salmon recovery." Indeed, Bergman says, Cantwell almost never talks policy.
That's not exactly true. Cantwell typically points out important policy differences on campaign finance reform (she supports the McCain-Feingold bill that would ban unregulated soft money, while Gorton has been a leading opponent) and on health care (unlike Gorton, she champions a tough patient's bill of rights and prescription drug coverage under Medicare). She also calls for investments in higher education using tax credits and an expanded Pell grant program. And she has her Internet privacy platform, which calls for companies to disclose how they use personal information. More vaguely, she speaks of bridging the "digital divide" and "modernizing" K-12 education.
It is accurate to say, however, that most of these ideas did not emanate from her. Several are issues of the moment for the Democratic Party. At this still early stage in her political development, Cantwell seems like a synthesizer rather than an innovator, someone who likes to take an idea and run with it, by bringing people together and ironing out details.
In contrast, Gorton has, after decades in office, revealed himself to be an original, complete with personal obsessions, such as busting tribal sovereignty. Although he too pushes his party's well-worn tropes, like tax cuts and social security reform, he has actually formulated the Republican position on other issues. That has never been more apparent than this election season, as Gorton has showcased his efforts on the environment, health care, and education, efforts that have helped his party confront issues formerly ceded to Democrats.
Gorton's contribution has often been to find creative ways of applying the basic Republican mantra: Local control is good; federal government is bad. His bill on decentralized school funding is one example. Another is his advocacy for local salmon habitat restoration projects, rather than large-scale federal intervention like dam removal. It has been especially fascinating to see Gorton run as an environmentalist, even while being named to the League of Conservation Voters' "Dirty Dozen" list for attacks on the Endangered Species and Clean Water acts, among other things.
Cantwell has been trying to paint Gorton as "out of touch," so immersed in insider and special interest politics that he can't see the real needs of the state. Flashing a grit to match the senator's in Monday's KING 5 debate, she hammers on him for a rider favoring a proposed gold mine in Okanogan County that some fear will poison streams—a rider attached to, of all things, a bill on emergency relief for Kosovo. "Senator, you were a world-class promoter of that mine," she accuses.
No matter how ill-advised or sneaky his maneuver, Gorton comes across as anything but out of touch. In fact, he manages to make Cantwell look out of touch by arguing that the people of depressed Okanogan County want that mine. Up against a candidate with smarts, money, and glamour, Gorton is not giving away any easy wins.
Politicos on both sides are saying that this race, like the presidential one, will be decided by the strength of each party's get-out-the-vote effort. Both sides are putting all their muscle into phone banks, doorbelling, and literature drops. Both sides are extraordinarily motivated. More than any other race this year, this one could be a milestone in state history. Revered and reviled, Gorton has been a figure in state politics now for 41 years, and his loss would mean the end of an era.
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