Softening Slade

Is Senator Slade Gorton's interest in education and the environment more than election-year politics?

Softening Slade

SLADE GORTON IS now 72 years old. That’s only two years younger than Warren Magnuson was in 1980 when the age issue helped Gorton usurp the US Senate seat of the Democrats’ beloved elder statesman. Twenty years later, with Gorton up for reelection again, the politically vindictive might like to see the state’s most powerful conservative himself tagged as a tottering old fool. His fresh-faced, fortysomething Democratic challenger Maria Cantwell is giving it a shot, with slogans such as: “We need a senator from the 21st century, not the 19th.”

One problem with such a strategy is that Gorton is incredibly active. Especially in the last month. Gorton’s office has announced some new bill, initiative, or funding allocation almost every day. Even more interesting are the issues he has recently been active on.

Gorton has lasted in politics into his golden years because of his ability to reinvent himself according to the times—and he’s still as nimble at it as ever. In his last election, amid the Republican rebellion of postrecession ’94, Gorton hewed to a staunch conservative message heavy with rhetoric on crime, taxes, and urban-liberal elitism. This year, in the happy glow of boom times, we see a more moderate, sensitive Gorton concerned about education, health care, and even, despite an antigreen reputation that has made him the focus of a Sierra Club media campaign, the environment. So pronounced is the change that Democrats are worried Gorton is moving onto their turf. “It is important that we do not cede this issue to Gorton,” a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, David DiMartino, wrote in a memo last month to several senators in reference to a Gorton bill aiming to lower the price of prescription drugs.

Like other Gorton critics, DiMartino argues that the senator’s new face is essentially a superficial election-year stunt. “He came up with a bill that he knew was going to go nowhere,” DiMartino says of Gorton’s prescription drug bill, which would prevent pharmaceutical companies from charging more in this country than abroad. The bill has no cosponsors. Meanwhile, DiMartino and others point out, Gorton last month voted against a bill that would have created a prescription drug program under Medicare.

Similarly, Sierra Club Northwest representative Jim Young accuses Gorton of trying to “greenwash his bad environmental record” by, for instance, advocating higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and SUVs. Despite Young’s misgivings, the Sierra Club wholeheartedly jumped on board Gorton’s fuel-efficiency initiative, with one of the organization’s officials calling the resulting initiation of a national study on fuel efficiency “the biggest single step to curbing global warming.” But looking at Gorton’s record as a whole, the Sierra Club points to such things as his attempts to weaken the Endangered Species Act and clean water regulations, his opposition to removing dams that threaten salmon, and his maneuver to clear the way for a gold mine in Okanogan County that environmentalists fear would poison surrounding streams with cyanide. Gorton’s myriad opponents, including Native Americans embittered by his attacks on tribal sovereignty, are using the gold mine maneuvering as a symbol of his sneakiness as well as his environmental record. The senator attached a rider on behalf of the mine onto a late-night appropriations bill.

IT ISN’T FAIR, though, to completely dismiss Gorton’s pursuit of new issues as election-year politics. He seems to have developed a genuine interest, for example, in salmon recovery. Gorton still adamantly opposes most dam removal, believing that the economic impact is too great a price to pay. In fact, he generally opposes federal regulation of the issue, which he considers a “top-down approach.” However, especially since the federal government listed 14 West Coast species of salmon and steelhead as endangered, Gorton has looked around for other approaches and found a number of local groups he likes that work on education, habitat improvements, and hatchery reform.

“It’s safe to say that the closer decisions are made to home, the more I like them,” Gorton says in an interview by phone from Washington, DC. Because his senatorial seniority has bestowed upon him the powerful assignment of chair of the Interior Department’s appropriations subcommittee, he has been in a position to fund those groups with tens of millions of dollars.

Barbara Cairns, executive director of a group Gorton favors called Long Live the Kings, says the senator has done so in a way that goes beyond the bringing-home-the-bacon duty legislators feel they must meet to stay in office. “These are tough battles,” Cairns says, noting that other legislators are vying for the same funds for their home districts. “It matters that he’s willing to fight them.”

Gorton also cites his reform of what he feels was the incestuous nature of funding allocation for salmon recovery organizations by the Bonneville Power Administration. In 1996, he says, he discovered that the groups advising the BPA on how to spend an annual budget of $100 million were giving the money to themselves. He created a scientific panel to make funding recommendations to the BPA instead.

In conversation, Gorton seems even more passionately interested in education. The senator says he had an epiphany at a 1994 meeting in Fife at which educators hollered, not for more federal dollars, but for fewer mandates governing how schools could use them. For instance, one funding source must be used for homeless kids, while another for the disabled. Soon after, Gorton crafted a bill to combine several programs into one grant going directly to schools, to be used at their discretion. As in salmon recovery, his approach meshes with the Republican philosophy of local control, fighting, as he sees it, the condescending federal message that “we know better than you” how to spend your money.

The bill ultimately died, but Gorton says as a result “not only educators, but think tanks started to beat a path to my door.” He estimates that in the last three years he has spent a quarter of his time touring schools, an endeavor that has left him “extremely impressed. I’m not a sky-is-falling critic.” Gorton has continued his efforts to get a similar bill passed. His latest version, dubbed the “A+ bill,” would combine 20 programs in a dozen, unspecified test states. As a compromise, the money would go to the states, not the schools themselves, and for the privilege of flexibility states must show improved test scores within five years.

Of course, just because Gorton is involved in an issue doesn’t mean his approach is necessarily the best. On education, Senator Patty Murray raises a good point when she argues that Gorton’s strategy ignores “what the federal role is and ought to be” in schools, which is to “make sure those kids traditionally left behind have extra help.” Murray worries that states with flexibility will no longer use their federal funds for disadvantaged kids. Her concern is especially pertinent because districts are funded locally at widely varying levels according to the affluence of their communities.

Nor does Gorton’s new interest in these issues mean he has abandoned core conservative causes such as tax relief. But whether sincerely pursued or not, these issues do give Gorton yet another new look that he is playing up to the hilt. Gorton’s campaign and senate Web sites are replete with pictures of the usually arch senator in backpacking attire, such as jeans and a fleece jacket, engaged in environmental projects like planting trees to improve salmon habitat. The senator’s Democratic opponents, former high-tech executive Cantwell and state Insurance Commissioner Deborah Senn, may be decades younger, but they’ll still have to run like hell to catch up with him.

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