Friday, December 30, 2005

''State's top power trio sets mark for women''

"The rise of Gov. Christine Gregoire and U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell has broken another lock on a political system that remains disproportionately controlled by men.

This year marked the first time in American history that women occupied the three most powerful elected offices of a single state, both U.S. Senate seats and the governor's office.

It's not entirely accurate to say that girls rule in Washington state, but it's certainly true that women are driving the agenda as never before. While politics remains a male-dominated domain nationwide, no other state is so reliant on powerful women for results.

What that means for residents is open to debate. Murray, Cantwell and Gregoire, all Democrats, insist they are simply doing what's best for the state and their constituents.

The difference, they say, involves motivation and methods that are based on collaboration instead of competition.

They may also be in the vanguard of a new era of U.S. politics that could include a female president and elected representation that more accurately reflects the American public.

Murray was the first of the three to break into the highest echelon of statewide elected office. Her Senate career exemplifies the sea change in public perception that all three women have built on.

When "the mom in tennis shoes" was elected in 1992, gender was a prime focus of her campaign. Murray worked to promote the impression that her demeanor and worldview -- along with her gender -- would shake up the Senate's insular, male-dominated culture.

Today, Murray is a powerful Washington, D.C., fixture with the ability to funnel billions of dollars back home. She is a member of the Senate's Democratic leadership, and she is a senior member of the Appropriations Committee.

A lot has changed since she arrived in 1993. Murray is one of 14 female senators, and three states -- Washington, California and Maine -- have elected women to both Senate seats. In 1992, there were only two women in the Senate.

But the revolution isn't complete, according to those who are keeping track.

"There is still a glass ceiling for women in politics," according to the White House Project, a national organization to advance women in political leadership. "The U.S. still has not had a female president, only four of the 14 official Cabinet positions are held by women, and our country ranks 59th (tied with the tiny European nation of Andorra) in terms of women's representation in national legislatures."

Murray has moved beyond being identified for her gender. She now expects to be recognized for her legislative accomplishments.

"When I first walked in (the Senate in 1993) there was a, 'Hum, can women do this?' Now women are doing this," Murray said.

The current roster of women is not the first. Dixy Lee Ray served as Washington governor in the 1970s and before that helped shape nuclear policy for the United States. Jennifer Dunn became one of the most influential Republicans in the U.S. House in the 1990s and emerged as a close ally of both presidents Bush. In 1996, the state Republican Party nominated Ellen Craswell for governor.

Still, in the U.S. Senate, men outnumber women by a margin of more than seven to one and only eight states have a woman as governor. Gregoire does not agree that gender in politics has become a non-story.

"In the rest of the country, when I talk to folks, they make it clear, it's still unique for a woman to run for statewide elected office," she said.

Gregoire also noted that there are only a handful of female attorneys general. But the pathway seems to be getting clearer.

In a reflection of how much has changed, when Cantwell ran for the Senate in 2000, gender rarely came up. Instead, she built her campaign around the performance of the Republican incumbent, Slade Gorton, and her own experience as an executive for the tech firm RealNetworks.

Gregoire said some of the old-school thinking remains. She said every one of her female colleagues who served as attorney general were broad brushed the same way.

"When I ran in 1992 ... (people said), I was not tough enough to be attorney general," she said.
But when she made her gubernatorial bid, three fellow state attorneys general told Gregoire: "Watch, when you run for governor, (people will say) 'You're too tough to be governor.' And they were right." That's a problem unique to female candidates, she said.

"Does anybody ever remember a time when people said a male candidate is too tough to be governor?" Gregoire asked. Gregoire, Murray and Cantwell all say they work well together and find ways to maximize their influence.

Yet Murray is dominant. With more seniority and a position on the Appropriations Committee, she is in a better position to deliver results for the state. Most noticeable are the billions of dollars she has funneled for Washington state transportation projects over the years. This year, for example, Murray helped write a transportation spending bill stuffed with $516 million for Washington. Included in that total was $220 million to begin replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct.
Cantwell, meanwhile, has focused on energy policy, taking on oil executives and accusing them of gouging consumers. Cantwell scored her biggest victory in the closing days of 2005 by leading Democratic opposition to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. ANWR supporters, including veteran Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, eventually backed down. Cantwell also has been a vocal supporter of alternative fuels. She authored an amendment to the energy bill that passed Congress that provides $550 million over five years to promote and nurture biofuels. That effort bore fruit on Dec. 22 when Cantwell announced that SSA Marine, the world's largest privately held cargo terminal operator and cargo handling company, and the Port of Seattle promised to use 1 million gallons of biodiesel annually beginning in 2006.

As for being one-third of the state's political power center, Cantwell says her and her colleagues' power and productivity flows more from their close relationships than gender. "We have known each other for a long time," Cantwell said. "When you've known each other for a while it's easy to work together and get to the answers."

Murray said: "I think Chris and Maria and I work really well together. We talk to each other. There is more of an attitude of, 'How do we work this together?' By Murray's reckoning, Washington, D.C., and Washington state are better off being served by women.

"For men, winning the game is absolutely everything," she said. "For women generally it's not whether you scored more points but whether you move the ball. We want our kids to get an education, we want our families to be healthy and we want to be comfortable in our neighborhoods."

In a report on the impact of women in politics, Karen O'Connor, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University, said research indicates that "the presence of women in legislative bodies makes a significant difference not only in what gets discussed, but also in what kinds of legislation are advanced."

O'Connor said data show that women legislators:

Conceptualize problems differently than men and are more likely to offer new solutions.

Are more likely to advance "women's issues," define women's issues more broadly than men, put them at the top of their legislative agendas, and to take a leadership role in those issue areas.

Are more likely to view crime as a societal, rather than individual, problem.

Are more likely to make certain that their policy positions are translated into new programs to help women.

Gregoire said her gender does, in fact, influence her priorities.

"I do look at things possibly a little different than others," Gregoire said. "When it came to transportation, that really was about safety for me. ... When you look at all of these issues, you will see: family leave, health care for children, education, economic development for families. That is really what defines me and what defines a lot of women."

As for her accomplishments this year, Murray is most proud of forcing the administration to provide $1.5 billion in funding for veterans, an appropriation that was originally stripped from the VA budget.

The Senate voted 96-0 in June to restore the money after Murray forced the VA to disclose it was $1 billion in the hole.

Murray has also pushed for federal money to be spent to help National Guard and Reserve troops -- and their families -- cope with long deployments.

For the coming year, Murray said she will work to pass a maritime cargo safety bill that she introduced in November with Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. Specifically for Washington, Murray said she will work to provide transportation dollars to help the state overcome its well-known traffic problems.

That effort will be maximized, she said, by working closely with Gregoire and other state officials.

As for that still untouched summit in American politics, the presidency?

"I'm more optimistic than I've ever been that in my lifetime I will see a female president or vice president," Gregoire said. "I know my daughters are going to see it in their lifetime."-from the P-I today. Thanks to Evergreen Politics for the tip.

You can't buy coverage this good, though the rovians have certainly tried.

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