The Most Underestimated Feminist in DC

The Most Underestimated Feminist in DC

The Most Underestimated Feminist in DC

With a two-seat gain while chair of the DSCC and a successful effort to get a budget through the Senate under her belt, Patty Murray has become a major force in the Senate.


Senator Patty Murray
Senator Patty Murray speaks at a field hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in Tacoma, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Lakewood, WashingtonPatty 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.”

When Murray came to the Senate, recalled Robert Greenstein, director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “A number of people thought she’d get eaten up, and in the rough-and-tumble of politics she wasn’t likely to be a major player. Everybody who thought that has turned out to be dead wrong.”

In the long, slow path to Murray’s becoming the first woman to manage a budget through either house, she rose up through the Appropriations Committee, took an early turn as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and became an increasingly influential part of the leadership. As chairman of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, she battled for veterans’ benefits—her father was a disabled World War II veteran, mostly in a wheelchair from her teens onward—and then became chairman of the 2012 bipartisan Senate-House Super Committee, devised to find a long term budget fix. It failed, Murray says, because Republicans—“fearful of the Tea Party primarying them, and Grover Norquist”—would not agree to any new revenues.

In that divided Congress, she carved out her position on social as well as economic issues. When the Democratic Senate and Republican House were hammering out a budget deal in spring 2011, she was called to the Capitol late one night. “I walked in, and I was literally the only woman,” Murray told The Washington Post. “And I walked in and they said: ‘We’re all done except the House wants one last concession. They want us to give on that and we’re done.’ ”

The last item was removing all federal funds from Planned Parenthood.

“And I said: ‘Not on my watch. Absolutely not on my watch.’”

The next day, Murray mobilized Democratic women senators to speak against the House demand, and the House dropped the demand.

Later in the session, when the House oversight committee held a hearing on abortion with testimony only from five male religious leaders, Murray expressed her dismay on the Senate floor: “I’m sure by now many of my colleagues here have seen the picture of this all-male hearing. It’s a picture that says a thousand words. And it’s one that most women thought they had left behind when pictures only came in black and white.”

Her most recent years in Congress have not only challenged Murray’s political convictions, they have frustrated her deep conviction that people have a right to depend on government, and that it’s the responsibility of Congress to make it work—even across deep differences. Women, she says, have a particular commitment to getting to a deal, and she proudly points out that the only two Appropriations subcommittees to pass their budgets to the Senate floor last year were hers and Mikulski’s.

“Women are better listeners,” she says, and want to get things done: “Maybe because we have to pick the kids up after school.”

Last year, Murray got another opportunity to amplify women’s voices, with a job nobody else wanted. According to the congressional newspaper The Hill, at least three other senators had refused the DSCC job in the 2011–12 cycle. Many more Democratic than Republican seats were up for re-election, and after the Democratic disaster of 2010, nobody wanted losing the three-seat majority on his résumé. Murray took on the DSCC chairmanship for a second time, and set out to recruit candidates. Ultimately, six women Democratic senators running for re-election were joined by five new women Democratic nominees.

“Oftentimes, when you’re looking at people to run, they rule the women out, saying they can’t win,” Murray said after the election. “I ruled them in.”

And drew them in. Recalls Elizabeth Warren, “Patty reached out to me long before I thought seriously about running for the Senate. She was gently encouraging, willing to offer candid advice and to talk about both the good and the bad of running for office.”

Tammy Baldwin remembers Murray contacting her as early as May 2011. Maizie Hirono of Hawaii says, “She was one of the first people I met with, and I’m glad she was. She very much wanted to promote women candidates for the Senate.”

Through these campaigns, the DSCC promoted fundraising events featuring the women candidates, and Murray insisted on the political appeal of highlighting women’s issues, notably contraception and childcare. After a DSCC fundraising breakfast at the national convention in Charlotte, she emphasized the power of the theme, “Who’s going to make those decisions for me? Some guy in Washington, or me and my family?”

Just before his death in December, Hawaii’s landmark senior senator, Daniel Inouye, requested that Murray escort Hirono down the Senate aisle to be sworn in. Asked by the Huffington Post why she thought Inouye had made the request, Murray said, after a pause, “I think Danny just respected the work that women do.”

Having more women in the Senate, says Murray, “makes a difference. I can see it every day.”

She points out that in this session, there are five women Democrats (and two women Republicans) on the typically testosterone-heavy Senate Armed Services Committee. Earlier this year, Murray points out, the Senate finally called a hearing on sexual assault in the military—held by the subcommittee on personnel, chaired by Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

In May, Murray and Senator Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, introduced the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013, to strengthen victims’ rights and make it harder for cases to disappear.

* * *

Murray’s own position as chairman of the Budget Committee makes her a particularly prominent woman. At a time of repeated budget crises and constant calls for a vaguely imagined Grand Bargain on federal finances, Murray succeeded the retiring Kent Conrad of North Dakota, known for brandishing detailed charts on the dangers of the deficit.

At a time when most people inside the Beltway compete to be called a deficit hawk, Murray’s approach has been a little different.

“She’s charting a position that’s somewhat more progressive than Kent Conrad,” observes the CBPP’s Greenstein. “There’s more of a focus on low-income families than any budget committee chairman in either house than I’ve seen in a long time.” And yet, he says, “It looks as though she’s actively commanding a broader coalition in the Democratic caucus.”

Murray follows her own low-key style in building that support. “She tells stories, she tells stories about real human beings,” says Mikulski. Perhaps more unusually, “she also listens to the stories of other senators.”

“The culture of the budget discussion has been fear of the deficit,” Murray says. She sees the federal budget as a tool for building and supporting a middle class, through efforts such education, healthcare and child care—the kind of issues that kept coming up in the firehouse in Lakewood.

“With all cuts, the people who have already been feeling the brunt of this economy will feel more,” she warns. “A lot of people driving around in BMWs won’t feel a thing.”

So the Democrats on Murray’s budget committee devised a budget that would spread the impact, calling for $975 billion in new revenues over the next decade, revenues she says should come from closing tax breaks for upper-income earners and corporations. It includes some cuts, some investments and none of the concessions on entitlements proposed in President Obama’s budget.

“The first priority of the Senate budget is creating jobs and economic growth from the middle out, not the top down,” Murray explained.

Floor-managing the budget through the Senate, Murray used fewer charts and limited oratorical flourishes. But after voting on seventy different amendments, the Senate passed its first budget in four years at 4:56 am the Saturday before Easter recess. Fifty Democrats voted for it, while it was opposed by all forty-five Republicans and four Democrats up for re-election in tough states in 2014—although it seems a couple of them might have been available if needed.

Where the Senate budget goes is unclear. It is the literal polar opposite of the all-cuts, Medicare-to-vouchers budget constructed by the House Budget Committee chairman, 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, and months later, the House has shown no eagerness even to name conference committee members to begin negotiations. But the Senate budget’s passage, along with Murray’s success as DSCC chair and her rising leadership role, further strengthens her position in the Senate, and her insistence that the budget—and everything else the Senate does—is a family issue.

“It’s who I am,” she says. “It’s what I think about. It’s what I see, and it often gets lost in the numbers game.”

Murray will never be an eloquent, overpowering presence among senators who compete for headlines, Sunday morning TV spots and mention for higher office. Some of the freshmen she helped elect, such as Warren and Baldwin, already have more media prominence than she does.

But Murray’s low-key persistence displays the rise of Senate women from a single-digit curiosity to a major force—and how that change re-emphasizes the connection between senatorial politics and ordinary Americans’ lives.

Read Jessica Valenti on how in the next presidential election, she’s voting for a woman.

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