Washington state’s ‘soccer mom’ senator in fight of her career

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray has been one of the nation’s biggest advocates of federal spending to boost the foundering economy. Here at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, the country’s worst atomic weapons contamination site, Murray scored $1.9 billion in stimulus funds to speed cleanup and add 1,500 high-paying jobs in south-central Washington.

But voters here have been ambivalent at best about all the money flowing in. During the primary, Murray trailed the local “tea party” candidate, who lost the GOP nomination to real estate investor and former legislator Dino Rossi. The Democratic incumbent now is waging the fight of her 18-year career against Rossi, fueled by conservative fears — even in the Hanford boom belt — that all the federal bacon comes with too much fat.

“I’m a business guy, so when someone says, ‘Oh, we’re going to spend all this money,’ we’re all rubbing our hands together. But from another perspective, you’ve got to ask, where’s the money coming from?” said Tony Benegas, a Republican activist, West Richland city councilman and owner of an engineering company that got a small contract out of the federal stimulus grant for the Hanford cleanup. “Is there a benefit? Yeah. But at what cost? Somebody’s going to have to pay the piper.”

Murray, 60, was elected Washington’s first female senator in 1992 on a campaign that played up her low-key, “soccer mom in tennis shoes” background as a citizen activist and school board trustee. Since then, she has become an influential member of the Democratic leadership and a mostly reliable supporter of Obama’s legislative agenda. Murray has capitalized on her appropriations committee seat to secure funds for dam, museum, ferry and mass transit projects and boost local employers like Boeing.


Rossi, 51, who narrowly lost the last two gubernatorial elections, has challenged Murray on federal earmarks and played up his seven years in the state Senate, when he says he worked with the Democratic governor to fill a $2.6-billion budget shortfall without raising taxes.

Polls show the two neck and neck. The Murray campaign recently has featured a virtual Who’s Who of the left: President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden (twice) and former President Bill Clinton have headlined rallies for the incumbent.

“Panic is the word that comes to mind,” state GOP Chairman Luke Esser told reporters recently. “Obviously, if they didn’t think that Patty Murray was in deep, deep trouble, we wouldn’t be seeing this parade of celebrities.”

Rossi and his allies have accused Murray of expanding spending, stifling small business and being a decisive vote on overhauling healthcare laws and raising taxes. A TV ad sponsored by the conservative American Action Network shows a pair of dirty sports shoes stomping over cringing citizens. “You wore your tennis shoes out on our backs — small business, Washington families and children. It’s time you got off our backs,” it says.

Rossi has been particularly critical of her liberal sponsorship of earmarks, funds directed by Congress toward groups and projects in their districts outside the normal budget process. Taxpayers for Common Sense listed Murray ninth in the Senate for successful earmarks in the 2010 budget, totaling $219.5 million.

Business owners, he said in an Oct. 17 debate with Murray, “don’t need Sen. Murray’s stimulus, they don’t need her bailouts … they don’t need her earmarks. What they need is modest taxation, fair and predictable regulation, and let them go out and chase the American dream.”

Murray said she promotes spending projects to build infrastructure and create jobs that are not her ideas, but for which communities have come to her seeking help. The money, she said, helped reopen a major south Seattle bridge and aided constituents.

“I talk to businesses all the time, and they tell me what they need to have in order to be secure here in our state to create jobs. They need the infrastructure in place to allow them to bring goods to their stores or sell their goods overseas,” she said in the debate.

In Richland, a Republican stronghold so intertwined with the World War II-era nuclear site that the local Starbucks has a framed “Trilinear Chart of the Nuclides,” the Hanford cleanup has been underfunded for years — even as a plume of toxic waste has leached toward the Columbia River.

Murray secured one of the biggest single stimulus appropriations in the country, boosting the $2-billion-a-year cleanup budget to about $2.7 billion over three years.

“The original plan was not to have the river corridor cleaned up till 2015 or later. Now, we’re looking at having it cleaned up in 2013 or 2014. So it has moved up the timeframe a considerable amount,” said Gary Petersen, vice president of the Tri-City Development Council.

Though the Tri-Cities region has barely hiccupped during the recession, thanks to the massive cleanup project, the first job fair for the 1,500 new cleanup jobs drew applicants from across the country, said the council’s president, Carl Adrian.

“There was literally a line four to five people wide for half a mile long,” he said. “To me, this is the success story of the nation for Recovery Act funding.”