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Originally published October 2, 2010 at 10:03 PM | Page modified October 18, 2010 at 10:15 AM

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Sen. Patty Murray: suburban mom to D.C. power broker

Sen. Patty Murray is facing Republican Dino Rossi in what could be her tightest election race. Rossi is wearing the mantle of change and anti-incumbency. Rossi and his supporters are attacking Murray as an entrenched politician whose free-spending ways have run up the national debt. Here is an election profile of Murray.

Seattle Times Washington bureau

ABOUT MURRAY

Age: 59

Years in Senate: 18

Leadership: Majority conference secretary; member, Appropriations Committee

Home: Whidbey Island (born in Bothell)

Family: Married, two adult children

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Next Sunday in the Seattle Times - A look at Republican Dino Rossi, Murray's Nov. 2 opponent.

WASHINGTON — The staff at Cook Political Report interviews hundreds of congressional candidates before every election. But rarely have they received a request like the one from Patty Murray in 1992.

Murray, then a 41-year-old with a thin political résumé and an unprepossessing air, was making her first run for the U.S. Senate. After assessing the suburban-mom-turned-politico, the editors at Cook privately declared her underwhelming.

Apparently sensing the poor impression, Murray asked for a do-over. She made the most of her second chance.

"She was totally on message with an anti-Washington, anti-politician message," recalled Charlie Cook, a veteran political analyst and forecaster. Murray's platform "could resonate with a very wide swath of voters [and was] perfectly suited for that year."

That episode in many ways is emblematic of Murray's 18-year Senate career. She has wrangled her way into the Democratic leadership circle largely through sheer effort and moxie.

This year, Murray may need all that and more. She is facing what could be her tightest Senate race — except this time, it's her Republican challenger, Dino Rossi, who is wearing the mantle of change and anti-incumbency. Rossi and his supporters are attacking Murray as an entrenched politician whose free-spending ways have run up the national debt.

"She is an old-fashioned, pork-barrel liberal," said Chris Vance, a Republican political consultant. "That seems out of step with the times."

But Murray has a long record of confounding low expectations. Her guileless face and apparent lack of ego camouflage a determination dating to her activist days at her Washington State University dormitory, where she protested against an edict that women don skirts at dinner.

As a novice to national politics in 1991, Murray brushed off skeptics who tried to dissuade her from taking on incumbent Sen. Brock Adams. That was before a sexual-assaults scandal forced Adams out of the Democratic primary and made a Murray win seem slightly less improbable.

Today, as the Senate Democratic conference secretary, Murray is the party's fourth-ranking member in the Senate and the only elected female who helps shape the party's key agenda.

Murray got there with oratorical skills that would land her on no one's Best Speaker list. She's not known for landmark policy achievements; many of her signature accomplishments are based on her ability to steer federal dollars as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.

If Murray completes a fourth term, she would become the third-longest-serving U.S. senator from Washington, behind Warren G. Magnuson and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. Unlike those giants of Washington politics, Murray has a penchant for filtering almost every issue through the prism of ordinary people. In 2002 she ascribed Osama bin Laden's popularity among the world's poor partly to the fact that he built them schools and day-care centers, a remark that inflamed conservatives.

"Her value is that she brings a common-sense approach to a lot of complex issues," said Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, a liberal stalwart from Illinois who is one of Murray's closest personal and ideological friends.

That common touch is surprisingly valuable in the Senate, two-thirds of whose members are millionaires. Murray, by contrast, came to the Capitol claiming to have never earned more than $23,000 a year and with parents living in a Bothell mobile-home park.

Durbin said Murray's weekly trips home to Whidbey Island plug her directly into the worries and hopes of voters. She also has relied on her working-class background — including being the daughter of a World War II Purple Heart recipient with multiple sclerosis — to champion the causes of veterans, children and women.

"I think I speak for a lot of people," Murray said in her Senate office. "If the policies of our country don't work for my friends and my family, then our policies don't work for the people."

A backstage lawmaker

Murray doesn't have a long record of major legislation in her name. Five bills for which she was the main sponsor have become law, including a 2008 act to promote poison-control centers and another clarifying how the Family and Medical Leave Act applies to flight attendants.

But Murray has authored a number of other bills that were inserted into successful related legislation or enacted administratively. She also has used the appropriations process to create housing, border-security and other programs.

She has crossed the political aisle at times, working with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to toughen pipeline-safety standards after the 1999 Bellingham explosion that killed three people, and with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to beef up seaport security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Along with Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Lake Stevens, in the House, Murray for a decade fought to create the Wild Sky Wilderness Area in east Snohomish County.

Her keenest impact has come from tapping federal coffers to benefit workers and programs.

She has helped direct federal money to build Sound Transit light rail, clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation, repair the Howard Hanson Dam, pay for ferries and construct and repair countless miles of roads. She also has funneled billions of dollars to veterans, who have few better advocates in Congress.

Most recently in August, Murray helped to craft a $26 billion federal aid package for state Medicaid programs and public schools. The spending measure incensed Republicans, prompting Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to pledge to obstruct virtually all future Democratic funding proposals.

Murray, who turns 60 next week, is affable and gracious. Her office in the Russell Senate Building is one of the busier ones on Capitol Hill. She hosts weekly coffee klatches with visiting constituents, each of whom receives a commemorative photo with Murray mailed home.

Her snug reception room features few mementos from her career. A color portrait of Murray hangs alongside that of a dozen others — all men and all in black and white — from Washington who preceded her to the Senate. Below that is a shot of President Obama scooping up a Washington state apple from a bowl in the Oval Office. Murray, her 5-foot frame dwarfed by Majority Leader Harry Reid and other men, stands beaming in the middle of the scene.

Clout behind the scenes

Paradoxically, Murray's visibility is due in no small part to her embrace of the unglamorous, behind-the-scenes business of the Senate.

In 2000, she volunteered to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, a high-profile but largely thankless fundraising post. She helped haul in $158 million in two years, but Democrats still lost their Senate majority when Republicans netted a gain of two seats in 2002.

At the end of her stint, then-Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle rewarded Murray with one of the four spots on a newly created leadership committee to help shape strategy.

Murray's leadership post notwithstanding, she isn't known as a star on the national political stage.

"She's a workhorse, not a show horse," said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

Thurber doesn't rate Murray among his picks of the half-dozen top Senate Democrats, a list that includes Durbin, Chuck Schumer, Byron Dorgan, Tom Harkin, John Kerry, Chris Dodd and Carl Levin.

Murray instead has amassed her clout, Thurber said, by dint of personality, utility and pivotal committee assignments.

As a freshman, she snagged a plum seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee the day after her swearing in, in part by quickly striking a rapport with its chairman, the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia. She now chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, a perch that allows her to direct federal spending on infrastructure projects.

Murray also found personal, if not always political, kinship with the late Sen. Ted Stevens, the powerful Alaska Republican and fellow Appropriations Committee member. Capitol Hill veterans still recount Murray's defense of Stevens on the Senate floor in 2005 when he was seeking federal money for the infamous "bridge to nowhere," a $400 million link between Ketchikan, Alaska, and Gravina Island, home to the Ketchikan International Airport and 50 residents.

Ric Ilgenfritz, a former legislative director for Murray, said she mixed political arm-twisting and pragmatism to push her agenda.

In 1995, she tried to filibuster against a bill lifting the ban on export of Alaska oil to foreign refineries. Murray enlisted Sen. Slade Gorton and other Republicans to oppose the measure, which she warned could cost jobs at Washington refineries and pose environmental risks.

Facing impending defeat, she extracted two concessions from the bill's leading champion, Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, to protect the Strait of Juan de Fuca and domestic refinery jobs.

"Outside of the bombast and all the public posturing, the Senate is too small a group to be effective if you don't listen," said Ilgenfritz, now executive director of policy and planning for Sound Transit. "I think they would say [Murray] is effective."

Al Swift, a former Democratic congressman from Bellingham whose final term in office coincided with Murray's arrival, said she has a zeal for retail politics reminiscent of Scoop Jackson, who never lost his relish for contacts with constituents during 42 years in Congress.

Swift recalls how Murray was overshadowed at first by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the former San Francisco mayor who was one of three women elected to the Senate in 1992.

"I have never seen anybody grow so fast on the job" as Murray, said Swift, now a semiretired lobbyist in Arlington, Va.

From saver to spender

Perhaps Murray's starkest transformation has been her emergence as an unapologetic — at times even defiant — dispenser of federal dollars.

During her first year in the Senate, she defended her frequent votes to reduce the Clinton administration's spending requests by saying, "I wasn't elected to bring home the bacon. I was elected to cut the budget."

Murray since has become a prolific sponsor of earmarks, grants awarded at the behest of individual lawmakers to favored groups and companies. Her office churns out seemingly ceaseless news releases touting millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars she helped win for projects in Washington state.

The question for Murray now is how her brand of purse-string politics will play out with an electorate squeezed by the worst recession in 80 years.

Murray downplayed the prospect of a close race against Rossi, saying she's heard the same refrain at every election. And she betrays no compunction for doing what she says she's always done: serve her state the best way she knows.

"I come here to be the voice of the people," she said.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com. Seattle Times news researchers David Turim and Gene Balk contributed to this report.


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