Politics & Government

Murray wants to change Congress by electing more women

"Super committee" members Senators Max Baucus (right), D-MT, and Senator Patty Murray, D-WA
"Super committee" members Senators Max Baucus (right), D-MT, and Senator Patty Murray, D-WA Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT

WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray says that if Congress had more women, there might be a plan in place to deal with the nation's $15 trillion debt.

While the supercommittee that she helped lead failed last month in its bid to offer a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan, Murray says "it may have come out very differently" if she hadn't been the only woman on the 12-member panel.

Women, she says, understand compromises, and Murray wants to bring more of them on board. The veteran Washington state Democrat is in a good position to make that happen.

Since becoming her party's chief recruiter for Senate candidates a year ago, Murray has lined up five new women to run in 2012. On the campaign trail, they'll be joined by six Democratic women who are up for re-election.

With at least 11 female candidates, it promises to be a record year for the party. Women would comprise a third of the party's candidates.

"It is going to be an historic year," said Murray, a 61-year-old fourth-term senator.

The previous record of 10 candidates came in 1992, in what became known as the Year of the Woman. Murray, who got elected that year, said it was a time when "no one thought women could run or win."

She campaigned as a "mom in tennis shoes," a pre-school teacher who got introduced to politics by rallying 13,000 women to save a pre-school program that had been targeted for budget cuts.

"Like any mom, I got mad and I went out and started making phone calls and organizing women," Murray said at a news conference this week. And she said it taught her "that when you feel passionately about something and you go out and work hard you can make a difference."

Now, as the first woman to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and one of her party's power brokers, Murray said voters will have a prime chance next year "of really changing the dynamics" of Congress, which suffers from abysmal ratings.

"We need diversity in the Senate, and we need people who come to the job who really want to make a difference for their country," she said. "And when I look out across the country, I see women who understand that."

Only 17 of the 100 U.S. senators are women.

Of the six Democratic women facing re-election, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is the only one in a toss-up race. Easy wins are predicted for Maria Cantwell of Washington state, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Murray has recruited women to run in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Nevada, Massachusetts and North Dakota. But in Connecticut, she's siding with third-term Rep. Chris Murphy over his challenger, Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of state.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, said Democrats are trying to overplay the issue. She noted that Republican women are running for the Senate in Maine, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nebraska and Connecticut.

"They are not without women candidates, which I guess is what to me the DSCC is trying to suggest, which is not necessarily true," Duffy said.

Beginning in August, Murray had to juggle her DSCC role with her job as co-chairwoman of Congress' so-called supercommittee, which disbanded Nov. 21. She said in an interview that the special panel could have benefited from more women, "who I think really understand compromise and getting things done."

"You want the practical answer to why we would get things done?" she asked. "Because we are multi-taskers: We have to pick up the kids and get dinner and, you know, help with the homework and get things done, and we don't mess around. And so we come into politics the same way: We have a task, it's hard, but we make decisions, and we get things done."

In her recruiting, Murray said she has "looked for the kinds of people who had great stories to tell." She introduced three candidates at her press conference at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum on Capitol Hill, the former home of the National Woman's Party.

Murray's choice in Hawaii, third-term Rep. Mazie Hirono, was born in Japan and would be the Senate's first female immigrant and first Asian-American woman. As the daughter of a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, Hirono said her family sometimes did without food. She told the story of coming to the United States with one suitcase, and she said she can identify with economic hardship.

"That's something I know about personally," Hirono said.

In Wisconsin, Murray is backing seventh-term Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who would be the nation's first openly gay senator. Baldwin, the first woman elected to Congress from her state, was raised by her maternal grandparents. At age nine, she spent three months in the hospital and her grandparents had to pay the bill because an insurance company wouldn't count a grandchild as a qualified dependent.

"No family should have to go through that," Baldwin said.

And in Nevada, Murray is supporting seventh-term Rep. Shelley Berkley, the granddaughter of immigrants who came to the United States to escape the Holocaust, unable to speak any English. Her father worked as a waiter in upstate New York in the early 1960s, then packed up the family to look for a similar job in California. They stopped in Las Vegas for a night and never left. She said she understands the tough times in her state, too.

"I've got the highest unemployment rate in the country and I've got the highest mortgage foreclosure rate. ... I have three priorities: jobs, jobs, jobs," she said.

Despite Murray's efforts, Democrats will face an uphill battle in maintaining a Senate majority, Duffy said.

Democrats hold a 51-47 advantage now, with two Independents who align with the majority. But only 10 of the 33 open seats are controlled by Republicans, leaving Democrats with 23 to defend.

Of the eight senators who are retiring next year, five are Democrats, along with Independent Sen. Joe Liebermann of Connecticut. Three of the retirees are in states that had been considered safe Democratic territory until the incumbents stepped aside: North Dakota, New Mexico and Wisconsin.

Duffy said it all adds up to a difficult election cycle for Murray and the Democrats.

"There was not a long line forming to take the chairmanship this cycle, because they knew it was going to be tough," she said. She added that Murray is "doing fine," recruiting candidates in strategic states and helping the party raise money, "which is half the battle these days."

At her news conference, Murray boasted that Democratic incumbent senators, the party's Senate challengers and the DSCC had $97 million in the bank as of Sept. 30, compared with $75 million for their Republican opponents. She said Democrats are "running strong and aggressive campaigns and winning the money race."

Matt Canter, a spokesman for the DSCC, said Murray has been good at firing up the troops in Washington. The DSCC employs about 40 people.

"She's in this job because she believes in the Democratic majority ... And she comes to work every day with that tremendous enthusiasm and passion for that cause — and it's contagious," he said. "It's very contagious."

Murray jokes that she's both the first and second woman to head the DSCC since its founding in 1976. She held the job in 2001 and 2002, a turbulent cycle.

In the first year, Democrats took control of the Senate in June when former Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont left the Republican Party, and three months later came the attacks of Sept. 11, then the discovery of anthrax on Capitol Hill.

In the second year, a plane crash in Eveleth, Minn., killed Murray's friend, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, less than two weeks before the election, and Murray helped land former Vice President Walter Mondale as a replacement on the ticket.

In 2012, Murray expects Democrats to benefit from GOP infighting between its moderates and Tea Party members, saying she feels "increasingly good" about her party's prospects.

Republicans are likely to have Senate primaries in at least 14 states, compared with three for the Democrats.

But she said her experience has taught her that anything can happen.

"I think you cannot predict what's going to happen," Murray said.

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