Patty Murray’s Unlikely Hill Climb

The rise of the Senate’s original soccer mom.

Back in the nation’s capital this month for the beginning of another Congressional session and the swearing-in of a Democratic president, Senator Patty Murray was preparing for an addition to her office: a new desk.

But not just any desk; this one belonged to none other than the infamous Ted Stevens. The piece of furniture was made available due to the Alaska senator’s recent re-election defeat following his conviction on federal corruption charges.

“It’s going to be a huge, manly thing,” Murray says, sitting in her tastefully decorated office a few days before her new desk was to be delivered. “Maybe I’ll put a little purple on it.”

Washington’s senior senator was touched when Stevens called her to offer his prized piece of furniture, a move made even more significant by the fact that the desk once belonged to another former Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Washington Sen. Warren Magnuson.

“I was overwhelmed. What an amazing thing to have that piece of history,” says Murray. “The fact that [Stevens] said he thought it should go to someone who fights hard for our state really made me feel good.”

If fighting hard for the home state means bringing back hundreds of millions of dollars in federally-funded projects, Murray and Stevens certainly have that in common. In fact, she even bested Stevens in fiscal year 2008 (Oct. 2007–Sept. 2008), bringing home more than $1.3 billion in earmarks—a total surpassed in the Senate only by New York Sens. Hillary Clinton and Charles Schumer, according to the D.C.–based database

Murray and Stevens are good, if unlikely, friends. She recalls a time when she was afraid of the gruff statesman, who’d been known to wear an Incredible Hulk tie. But they bonded on the Appropriations Committee, and Murray was one of the few Democrats to speak on Stevens’ behalf during a tribute last month marking his last day in the Senate. She was one of fewer still to publicly defend his infamous “bridge to nowhere” in 2005, threatening her colleagues on the Senate floor that a vote against it would mean a grim future for their own projects.

Murray’s receipt of the desk of Stevens and Magnuson—the latter a fellow giant in the world of pork-barrel politics—is a fitting symbol for just how far she’s come since voters first sent the “mom in tennis shoes” to Washington, D.C., in 1992. A member of the Appropriations Committee, chair of that committee’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee, and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the Senate, Murray has not only evolved into a top-tier earmark machine, but her interests have broadened significantly as well.

“If you look at her issue base, it began with education and issues surrounding children’s health. Through her career there’s been some real evolution there,” says David Olson, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington. “Transportation was not part of her early candidacy. Neither was veterans or port security issues.”

Since then she’s secured hundreds of millions of Homeland Security grant dollars, and ensured that hundreds more millions go to companies producing war-related products.

Murray, who wears sensible black pumps when roaming the Capitol with the likes of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and who returns home to Whidbey Island every weekend (an unusual feat for a member of Congress, particularly one from the West Coast), insists she’s still the same girl from Bothell who got her start on the Shoreline School Board.

Yet despite her down-home persona, Murray is an agenda setter with a prime seat at the earmark trough. She may now be a grandma in tennis shoes, but behind that signature blond bob is a shrewd politician who is anything but a D.C. outsider.

Murray is one of the Senate’s unlikeliest members. A schoolteacher and one-time citizen lobbyist for education and environmental issues, in less than a decade she went from school-board member to state senator to the U.S. Senate—a meteoric rise even for the most polished hopefuls.

But Murray was anything but.

Former Congressman Al Swift, a Democrat who represented Washington’s 2nd Congressional District from 1979 to 1995 and now runs a D.C.–based lobbying firm, remembers Murray being shaky at the beginning of her Congressional career. “My initial reaction was that she had the stature of a state legislator,” he says.

“She wasn’t [an] Obama-style orator,” agrees Ed Zuckerman, who worked as a consultant on Murray’s 1992 campaign and is now a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters. “In debates and more formal speaking engagements, she wasn’t quite as smooth [as most]. I think real people on the street actually liked that.”

It’s a quality reminiscent of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who comforted some and aggravated others with her plain-folks persona. But while the Alaskan governor may have paraded her family around last fall, Murray patented running for high office using motherhood as a qualification. In fact, it was Zuckerman who first put the “mom in tennis shoes” line into use.

“Patty kept saying she had a story when she was a school-board member—she went to Olympia and a state senator said to her, ‘What are you doing? You can’t make a difference. You’re just a mom in tennis shoes,’ ” Zuckerman remembers. “So we used it. It was a useful way in one sentence to tell the rationale for her election when she had no federal experience at all.”

Though inexperienced, she was ambitious, even from the beginning. Local Democratic consultant Blair Butterworth remembers Murray approaching him as early as 1990 with designs on running for governor. “I remember telling her that a [state] legislator with little experience could run for a [national] legislative job,” he says. “But switching to an executive role, it becomes a much larger issue. My advice was not to [run for governor].”

Murray got an unexpected shot at an open seat after Sen. Brock Adams quit his race for re-election amid charges of sexual harassment and rape. However, after defeating former 3rd District Rep. Don Bonker in the primary, she still faced a spirited challenge from five-term 8th District Rep. Rod Chandler.

Zuckerman says Murray was helped that year by the backlash surrounding Supreme Court appointee Clarence Thomas’ alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill and the “Year of the Woman” that followed, in which more women voted and five female Senators were elected. He adds that she was also assisted by the fact that in 1992 (as in 2008) the country was looking for change instead of experience.

“You’d have a hard time arguing that any year other than that Election Day, Murray could’ve won that seat,” he says. “I mean, she was [four] years removed from being on the school board. [Four] years! That just doesn’t happen.”

Ultimately, Murray bested Chandler 54 to 46 percent, helped in part by a damning debate performance which he ended by quoting a Roger Miller lyric: “Dang me, dang me. They oughta take a rope and hang me. High from the highest tree. Woman would you weep for me?” Many saw the outburst as bizarre at best, and Murray pulled ahead in the polls.

“There were a lot of folks who didn’t think the campaign would be successful; she proved everybody wrong,” says 1992 campaign manager Teresa Purcell, adding that Murray did the same thing once she arrived in the Senate. “If you told people back then that she’d be where she is now, they’d be pretty surprised.”

Swift says Murray’s speaking skills have grown substantially since she arrived in D.C. “She went from reading speeches and not being sure of herself to being able to give an extemporaneous speech and answer[ing] questions off the top,” he says. “I can’t think of many that I’ve watched grow like she has.”

In spite of this, Murray constantly has to contend with the perception that she’s not the brightest bulb. In 2004, as part of its annual “Best and Worst of Congress” edition, D.C.–based Washingtonian Magazine gave her first place in the “No Rocket Scientist” category, an honor she shared with then–Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).

“At every stage of Patty Murray’s political career, she’s always been underestimated,” says Rick Desimone, Murray’s chief of staff for eight years, who now runs the Seattle office of McBee Strategic Consulting, a D.C.–based lobbying firm. “I think even to this day she’s sometimes underestimated. But people underestimate her at their own peril.”

Even Zuckerman is astonished by Murray’s rapid ascent from back-bencher to #4, a position that gives Murray considerable clout in helping to set the Senate’s agenda. “It surprised me how quickly she rose in seniority,” he says. “I expected her to be more of a Paul Wellstone type—more of a conscience-of-the-Senate-type. [But] she decided she wanted to be in leadership and make things happen.”

After 9/11, Murray prioritized the issue of national security. Since then, she’s helped bring hundreds of millions of dollars home in the form of Homeland Security grants, as well as defense appropriations earmarks (the latter of which is greatly helped by her membership, since 2003, on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security).

According to a database compiled by D.C.–based Taxpayers for Common Sense, recent war-related earmarks Murray has secured include $3.5 million for White Salmon–based Insitu Group Inc. to build unmanned aircraft; $1.6 million to Seattle-based Outdoor Research for “extended weather clothing and hand protection systems”; $2 million to Virginia-based SAIC for an unmanned undersea vehicle; and $6 million to Port Orchard–based SAFE Boats International for six CB 90 Riverine Craft.

While these may seem like worthwhile projects, they’re not without payback—or at least the perception of it. SAFE Boats International president Scott Peterson has donated a total of $7,000 to Murray since 2003. Likewise, Outdoor Research executives have also given $7,000 to Murray over the past six years.

Because of new laws requiring increased transparency, earmarks are now easier to track, though their ultimate recipient is often not known until years after the funding request is included in appropriations bills. Grant money funneled through the Department of Homeland Security is another story, however. For example, the Port of Seattle can’t report on what’s become of the $60 million Murray helped bring home for “Operation Safe Commerce,” the purpose of which was to test and strengthen technology for securing and scanning the containers that arrive on ships. Homeland Security says the outcome of the project is classified, and won’t share the results with the public.

Some of Murray’s money that has gone into port security is traceable, but only in the broadest of terms. Murray concedes the lack of transparency and oversight is “always a concern. When you write [earmark legislation], you have a vision of how things are supposed to happen, and you put in as much scrutiny as you can. For port security, all those grants are overseen by the Department of Homeland Security. You want it done right, but you know that the world is not perfect.”

Neither the Homeland Security Department nor the Port of Seattle is known for its effective stewardship of taxpayer money. Homeland Security, for example, mismanaged more than $30 billion in contracts for everything from airport screeners to border surveillance. And at the Port, recent findings of employee fraud in the management of construction contracts serve as memorable examples.

“The role Sen. Murray has had [in helping the port] has been significant,” says Rod Hilden, chief security officer of seaport security at the Port of Seattle. He notes that she’s one of the few elected officials to personally take a tour. “She asks, ‘What do you have? What do you need?’ She understands how significant the port is to the economy.”

Fred Felleman, Northwest consultant for Friends of the Earth and longtime port observer, says he recognizes that the Port of Seattle is vulnerable, but he questions how the money’s being used. “I’m surprised, as someone who attends almost every port commission hearing, by the lack of public discussion about these [Homeland Security] funds and how they’re being expended,” he says. “You’d think there would be some room for some updates, given how much public money has been spent.”

Port officials are busy spending the next round of Homeland Security grants, worth more than $7 million, for updating security at the current cruise-ship terminal (Pier 66) with a camera system that has analytic capabilities and a better baggage-screening system. In addition, grant dollars are going to Pier 99, which is slated for future cruise-ship docking, but has complicated security needs because there’s still commercial traffic there too, Hilden says.

Hilden adds that cruise ships, with their 200-plus visits during the season, pump approximately $1.4 million into the local economy each time a vessel reaches its port of call. They also pumped $9,000 into Murray’s campaign coffers last year, making her Congress’ seventh highest recipient of cruise-industry money in 2008, according to

Murray defends her work on port security—boasting about it regularly on her Web site—but concedes that in this age of increased scrutiny, perception is important. “You have to be careful with the way you raise money,” she says.

County and city governments have also been the beneficiaries of Homeland Security dollars championed by Murray. Mostly this means training exercises and high-tech toys, some of which have received little use so far. Last year, for instance, King County got a $3.4 million helicopter called “Guardian One,” as well as a bomb robot that King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson John Urquhart says “is like a toolbox on wheels with a camera and a shotgun.” The robot hasn’t been used on any real bombs yet, according to county officials, but there have been plenty of false alarms to send it to. The helicopter helped respond to 148 incidents last year, many outside of King County.

Also thanks to Homeland Security money, Bellevue recently got its own “Lenco BearCat,” a ballistic engineered armored response vehicle, or “a cross between a tank and one of those undercover planes,” says a city official who preferred not to be quoted by name. The BearCat is a SWAT truck intended for extreme law enforcement situations or terrorist attacks.

“It’s an imposing vehicle,” says the city official. “It’s been used some, but you know Bellevue. We don’t have a lot of those incidents yet. We used it for an operation in Seattle serving warrants.”

For Murray, the beginning of a new session of Congress meant leading a well-attended press conference with the rest of the Senate leadership—Reid, Schumer, and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)—in the ornate LBJ room in the belly of the U.S. Capitol.

It was to be the unveiling of the agenda for 2009—a discussion about the ways Democrats, with greater margins in the Senate and a colleague in the White House, planned to make health care more affordable and accessible, reform immigration policy, promote energy independence, and create jobs. But this day the Capitol press corps was more interested in the soap opera surrounding controversial Illinois Senate appointee Roland Burris. And at least a couple of them wondered, before the event began, what the deal was with that small blue-carpeted stool standing next to the podium.

“That’s for Patty Murray,” volunteered one reporter. “She’s height-challenged.”

But when the four Senate leaders took the stage, the stool remained vacant, with Murray instead choosing to stand off to the other side. When it was her turn to speak, she focused on health care and education, a nod to the issues that brought her to D.C. Though dwarfed by her male counterparts, Murray seemed at ease, speaking in a commanding tone about the Democrats’ intentions.

“The country’s called for change, and we’re bringing change to you by saying this country will work for you again,” she vowed.

While Reid and the others were mobbed by the press when the event ended, Murray shuffled out virtually unnoticed, evidence that some in D.C. are still oblivious to her standing.

“I’m not surprised [by Murray’s success], but many have been,” says Rep. Jay Inslee, a Democrat representing Washington’s 1st District. “Even with her successes in the Senate, people still underestimate her because of her short stature and gender. People don’t understand that you can marry friendliness and openness with tenacity and strength. That’s why her critics have been so wrong.”

By contrast, the state’s junior senator, Maria Cantwell, went to D.C. after being elected in 2000 with high expectations, in part because of her successful private-sector career and more polished demeanor. But Cantwell, though she’s had some legislative successes (such as a bill to protect against identity theft and another to expand Mt. Rainier National Park), has failed to rise as fast as Murray. She’s also had unusually high staff turnover and a reputation for being abrasive and difficult to work for. And unlike Murray, Cantwell is no friend of Stevens. In fact, the two had a long-running feud that resulted in the Alaska senator campaigning for Cantwell’s opponent Mike McGavick in 2006.

Murray, seated in her office near a full-sized WSU flag (her alma mater) that towers in the corner, uses a basketball analogy when asked about the low expectations that still confront her. “It’s easier to get to the basket if no one’s blocking you,” she insists. And her under-the-radar persona, the one still familiar to voters back home, may be the key to Murray’s staying power, says UW’s Olson. “That style of politics goes well with this state. Any more triumphalism doesn’t sit well with the electorate.”

Local consultant Butterworth agrees that Murray intuitively understands the limits of boasting to the public. “Somewhere along the line she got inoculated against Senate-itis,” he adds, referencing the tendency to forget where one’s from that often gets officeholders voted out.

And Murray is careful not to tinker with the formula that continues to get her elected. Former Rep. George Nethercutt—the man responsible for one of the biggest electoral upsets in recent history, beating House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994—ran against Murray in 2004. While Nethercutt says he and Foley debated nine times across their district, two debates were all Murray would agree to.

“From a political standpoint, it was probably smart to lay low [and] not give anyone a chance to scrutinize her record,” Nethercutt says, adding that the calculation might also have had something to do with public speaking not being her strong suit. “But my hope was that the public would’ve gotten a hard look at each of us.”

Nethercutt says no one’s lining up to go after Murray in 2010. Butterworth concurs: “I don’t think she has a vulnerability other than the things she can’t control, the partisan mood when she’s up for re-election.”

Murray’s powerful Senate allies don’t just include the likes of Reid, Durbin, and Schumer. Recently, an ailing Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, chose her to take the gavel when he needs a reprieve—a highly unusual move given the Senate’s strict seniority rules and Murray’s position as sixth in line for such an honor.

“Hell, Byrd named her interim chair [of the Appropriations Committee], passing over many others ahead of her,” says Rep. Norm Dicks, a Democrat who represents Washington’s 6th Congressional District. “No one at home would believe it.”

“I’ve noticed she’s a favorite of Senator Byrd’s,” adds Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), who until the Democrats took over in 2007 chaired the Appropriations Committee. “It certainly was unusual to skip over several people to have someone step in as acting chair.” Cochran adds that he hasn’t heard any grumbles from Murray’s Democratic colleagues.

Certainly being in good with Byrd has helped Murray achieve her #3 status in earmark production. But even with the bad rap such pet projects have received lately, Dicks, a House appropriator who over the years has brought home so much money for one Washington company that he’s often referred to as D-Boeing, marvels at how careful Murray is. “I’ve never seen her go for something that was later criticized,” he says, sitting in his D.C. office across from a giant salmon replica and some models of Boeing planes.

But the Congressional Pig Book, compiled annually by D.C.–based Citizens Against Government Waste, says otherwise. In 2007, it gave Murray egregious pork honors for a $1.65 million earmark to improve the shelf life of vegetables. The idea behind the project was to improve food options for troops in the field, and the money went to California-based Arcadia Biosciences. Furthermore, last year the Pig Book noted Murray’s $82 million earmark for Columbia River fish mitigation as excessive, and mentioned the $245,000 she secured to build the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center in Prosser, the purpose of which is to educate about and promote Washington’s vintners.

“Wine in Washington is a $3 billion industry,” observed the Pig Book. “Taxpayers should not be soaked for a new wine center.”

In a press release announcing the earmark, Murray calls the wine industry a “bright spot” in the Central Washington economy, and argues the center will create 14 jobs and contribute to “hundreds of additional jobs” in the industry. But Citizens Against Government Waste spokesperson Leslie Paige says a lot of Murray’s earmarks strike her as “low-priority stuff, if you want to talk about putting national interests above the parochial good.”

Paige says a good contender for the next Pig Book is Murray’s $4.5 million earmark for an Olympic Coordination Center in Bellingham. “I mean, an Olympic Coordination Center? That’s ridiculous,” says Paige.

Asked whether Murray is likely to continue to bring home record-breaking amounts of cash, Glenn Reynolds, founder of, a Web site specializing in publicizing government waste, says simply: “People closest to the trough tend to do especially well,” a reference to the powerful Appropriations committee. But earlier this month, lawmakers in the House and Senate announced a plan to cut earmarks to a level half that of fiscal 2006— about $8.5 billion for fiscal 2010. Lawmakers who request earmarks would have to explain on their Web sites the purpose of the earmark and why it would be a valuable use of taxpayer funds.

“I think they’ve laid out some good goals for all of us to reach,” Murray says of the proposal. However, she’s also quick to defend the money she brings home. “I work hard to make sure I take care of the people in my state. We are 2,300 miles away from this capital. I get up every day, I find what people need in every corner of my state, and I come back here and fight for them.”

Though Murray is cagey about her future ambitions, based on her progress over the past 17 years, few think she’ll do anything but continue to try and increase her stature (so to speak). But she may ultimately be stymied, if only by seniority.

For example, she’d hoped to chair the Veterans’ Affairs Committee (she was its first female member) this year. This appointment would have required Democrats to kick “Independent Democrat” Joe Lieberman of Connecticut out of their caucus, which would have set in place a musical-chairs rotation of committee heads that could have landed Murray the job. But the Dems kept Lieberman, and Murray—unless there’s some grand wave of retirements—may be stuck for years to come as third, fourth, or fifth in line on the committees on which she serves.

The same holds true for Senate leadership. Though this session started shakily with the Burris imbroglio, Majority Leader Reid likely isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, nor are Durbin or Schumer. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see her move up,” says Swift. “But she’s going to have to wait around for a while.”

In the meantime, Murray must avoid making the mistake of so many who become important in the other Washington and forget where they’re from. “That old aphorism that power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to absolutely corrupt has borne itself out to be true in more cases than not,” says UW’s Olson. “She’s handled herself well up to this point. But she needs to be watchful.” One has only to look at Murray’s friend Stevens for an example of a hard worker eventually brought down by corruption.

But Murray’s humble persona seems to be holding. And it doesn’t hurt that she comes home to Whidbey every weekend, where it’s not unusual for people who see her on the street to bend down and give her a hug, says spokesperson Alex Glass. “It always throws us off a little,” Glass admits. “I mean, people don’t hug Harry Reid when he goes home.”

Yet there remains an obvious contradiction between being the underdog everyone’s pulling for and being the person in power, with notorious friends like Stevens and countless others lining up with their hands out.

“You can’t be a back-bencher/outsider looking in if you’re in leadership,” says Zuckerman. “But I think she’ll always have that [down-home] side of her. It’s very genuine. She came to this position because there was a moment in time when she was the perfect candidate. She was very smart about that opportunity. [She] played it perfectly— just like Obama did.”

Comparing her to a famous Jimmy Stewart character, a Boy Scout leader who suddenly becomes a senator, Inslee says Murray’s had an “interesting Senate career, a sort of ‘Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington,’ with a happy ending.”