Senator Patty Murray speaks at a field hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Lakewood, Washington—Patty Murray is listening.
Not listening in the taut senatorial style of waiting for an opening to talk, but actually listening, quietly and intently, as if the mother telling Murray how the sequester would endanger her son’s healthcare might provide the key to persuading the entire US Senate. Lakewood, just southeast of Tacoma, lives in the shadow of the massive (six freeway exits) Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and shutdowns and furloughs created by what people here call “the other Washington” have put everyone in this fire station meeting room on edge.
It seems that everyone in the room, thick with union windbreakers and camo jackets, has a worry, and Murray will listen to each one.
In her fourth term, largely under the media radar, Patty Murray has become a major force in the Senate, and a leading voice for family-level concerns not often central to that body. She has been insistent on women’s issues such as healthcare, domestic violence and reproductive rights. Her status has been bolstered by two recent triumphs—a completely unexpected 2012 two-seat gain as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), and piloting a federal budget though the Senate—that have helped make her Washington’s most underestimated feminist figure.
As chair of the DSCC in a year when Democrats feared losing their majority entirely, Murray oversaw an unexpected gain, as well as four new women Democratic senators, for a record total of sixteen. (There are four women Republican senators.) Then, as the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, she piloted through the Senate the first federal budget the upper house had passed in four years, a budget explicitly calling for investment and nearly $1 trillion in new tax revenue.
“As she put out that Senate budget,” says Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, “you could see how high the priorities are for middle-class families and families around the country. For the first time in a long time, there was a clear road map of where the Democrats are.”
With Iowa Senat0r Tom Harkin’s announcement of his retirement next year, Murray is in line to lead the powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee—a key focus for working family issues—if the Democrats hold the Senate.
Since 2007, Murray has been secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference, the fourth-ranking party leadership position. In leadership press conferences, as Majority Leader Harry Reid, Majority Whip Dick Durbin and Conference Chairman Charles Schumer crowd around the podium, she tends to stand to the side, taking it all in.
If the five-foot-tall senator might be overlooked, it’s happened before.
“Senator Murray,” says Senator Barbara Mikulski, the senior woman in the Senate, “is a twenty-year overnight sensation.”
Murray was elected in 1992, in the post&endash;Clarence Thomas&endash;Anita Hill Year of the Woman, which produced the then-astounding total of six women in the Senate. Her path from the state Senate was opened when the Democratic male incumbent retired after The Seattle Times reported eight women accusing him of sexual misconduct. After being dismissed early in her political career as “a mom in tennis shoes,” Murray appropriated the sneer as a campaign slogan. Now multiple pairs of tennis shoes, many presented to her by visiting supporters, are on display throughout her Senate office.
Although politically useful, the phrase, combined with Murray’s lack of oratorical firepower, has led some to question her political effectiveness. Reporters in both Washingtons have been known to snicker over her presence among more forceful, mostly male senatorial figures. The situation was familiar to Mikulski, once the only Democratic woman in the Senate. “Women weren’t taken seriously,” she recalls. “We were told we didn’t look the part and we didn’t fit the part.”