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A mother's spunk may lead to Democrats' 1st female US senator

By Julia MaloneStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 1985



Washington

Democrats, who have elected women governors and nominated a woman for vice-president, have long been embarrassed by their failure to elect even one woman to the United States Senate. Now national party officials are pinning high hopes on 1986 and Missouri, where a seasoned Democrat is a strong contender.

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Missouri Lt. Gov. Harriett Woods leads a band of loyal, well-organized supporters and is now raising money for a campaign to replace retiring Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D). She has a clear path to the nomination, since other top Democrats have bowed out and Senator Eagleton has given her the nod.

For the sometimes controversial Mrs. Woods, such acceptance from her party is almost novel. She made her reputation by being a burr under the saddle of the political establishment.

In fact, a fight with city hall first pulled her into politics, she says. She recalled in a recent interview that, as a young mother at home with three boys, she looked longingly toward their daily nap. But as soon as the kids were settled, they were disturbed by the traffic rolling over a manhole cover in the street. ``Clunk, clunk, clunk,'' she says. ``It drove me crazy.''

Town officials ignored her plea to reduce the traffic, so she went door to door gathering signatures. Soon after, the city closed her street.

``I got hooked,'' she says. ``The idea that you could get things done was addictive.'' From that time, she often went to the public, ``the people,'' as she says, when she met resistance in government. She has reaped major reforms in nursing home, zoning, and drunk-driving laws, and gathered hundreds of devoted supporters. But the byproduct has often been anger within her party ranks and a reputation as a liberal in a conservative state.

Woods ran for state Senate in 1977 and won. No sooner had she arrived at the state capitol than she blew the whistle on her senatorial colleagues for wasting money. She was quickly shut out of the old-boy network.

Both foes and supporters credit her with picking her issues well, however. Denied a major chairmanship in the state Senate, she asked to head a health committee, which seemed unimportant at the time. But Woods saw a coming storm over nursing care.

During the next year nursing-home scandals made banner headlines in Missouri. Woods and her obscure committee moved into the limelight as she successfully pushed through a major reform package.

Woods took that early lesson to heart. When she decided to run against incumbent US Sen. John Danforth (R) in 1982, her party leaders opposed her. She took her case to the people and won the primary. Even then, she won little help from a skeptical Democratic Party.

Her campaign then shocked both parties by coming within a hair of unseating Senator Danforth, with only a fraction of the Republican's resources.

The opposition ``just helped put steel in her,'' says State Sen. John D. Schneider, a former Democratic majority leader who served with her.

``I was put outside the power structure,'' Woods says. ``It was the best thing that ever happened to me, although it was miserable at the time.''

She was forced to go outside the state legislature for her base of support and as a result developed her own statewide network to push for what she calls ``problem-solving'' goals.

Supporter Betty Wilson, a lawyer, says that it was ``easy to pull together an organization'' for the US Senate race. Although Woods lost, lawyer Wilson says her candidate ``was looked upon as a nontraditional politician who cared for people issues.''

Her record for activism also makes Woods liable to charges of liberalism. ``I think she's extremely liberal -- much too much to suit the citizenry of Missouri,'' says Hillard Selck, chairman of the state Republican Party.

``We put her in the same category as Jane Fonda and Bella Abzug,'' he says.

Defenders say that description is unfair, but she has generally taken liberal positions, such as backing the Equal Rights Amendment and legalized abortion.

A former TV public-affairs host, married to a retired newspaper reporter, Woods calls herself a nonideological ``problem-solver'' who believes that before writing a bill, ``you have to listen to people.''

She has recently tried to broaden her appeal by holding hearings around the state on farm and small-business problems. To counter attempts to portray her as a big spender, she has started a hot line for state employees to report waste in government.

Her success in 1986 will partly depend on her ability to keep the focus of the campaign on economic issues instead of more emotional ones, such as abortion. She expects to need $4 million for her campaign. Fund raising will probably be easier in this race because of its high national visibility.

Meanwhile, she has been helped by Republican indecision over a candidate. ``I wouldn't say we have agreement,'' says GOP chairman Selck. Former Gov. Christopher Bond, widely seen as the stronger candidate, and US Rep. Thomas Coleman are eyeing the race.

``I look for one of them to remove himself before the primary,'' says Selck, noting that ``major donors'' are telling the Republican Party that they don't want their money used in a primary.

The biggest factor, however, will probably be the economy. In a state that ranks second in the US in car production, one longtime observer of Missouri politics says, ``If we're selling cars at the same rate we are now, '' the Republican will win. If car sales slow, ``she'll win.''

The Monitor in its Sept. 4 issue reported incorrectly that no Democratic woman had been elected to the United States Senate. Hattie W. Caraway of Arkansas was appointed to fill her husband's unfinished term and elected to a full term in 1931. Maurine B. Neuberger of Oregon, also the widow of a senator, was elected in 1960. The Democrats have no women serving now in the Senate.