Washington State's Women Change Tenor of Politics

All-female race for US Senate seat fits into state's long history of women in high places.

On a yacht in Seattle's Lake Union the other night, politicians were schmoozing with party activists and big donors. The three stars of the evening - all United States senators - were women, as were most of the activists and campaign contributors writing out thousand-dollar checks. In a downtown office the next morning, experienced political trainers were teaching leadership skills to a group of 12- to 14-year-olds. The trainers were women, their students all girls.

Elective politics still may be mostly a man's game in the United States. But in Washington State, a long history of women in politics tells a different story. Already, women here have had a significant impact on how the state's political processes work. And the future has a decidedly female cast as well.

Washington has a higher proportion of female state lawmakers than any other state (39 percent), a significant number of the congressional delegation are women, and women hold key statewide offices including attorney general and chief justice of the state Supreme Court. And for just the third time in the country's history, two women are battling it out here for a seat in the US Senate - incumbent Democrat Patty Murray and Republican US Rep. Linda Smith.

This is not just a "year of the woman" fluke. Seattle was the first big city to have a woman mayor (Bertha Landes back in the 1920s), women have been in the state legislature for 102 years, and women were voting here before national suffrage. (Ironically, they lost the vote in 1889 when Washington went from territorial status to statehood.)

Twenty years ago, Gov. Dixy Lee Ray (D) proved a woman could wield political power as willfully as a man, and in recent years women have headed both major parties in the state.

"We've had a history of strong, active women since the territorial days," says Liz Pierini, president of the League of Women Voters of Washington, whose daughter is the state's assistant attorney general. "Women were admitted as peers early on." They're appointed to high posts here as well. The top officials at the Seattle Port Commission and Sea-Tac International Airport are both women.

There are several reasons for this. Among these: a sense of openness and independence that is part of US Western history, an entrepreneurial legacy in the Pacific Northwest in which women played a strong economic role, and less religious influence of a kind that stifled political progress for women in other parts of the country.

"It's been a school of hard knocks for women," says Ms. Pierini, granddaughter of pioneers. "But they keep coming, they keep persisting."

Although the Seattle area is one of the most liberal in the country, it's not just a place for Democrats. Republican women hold important offices as well, including two seats in Congress and majority leader in the state's House of Representatives.

According to participants and observers, this has affected the process of governing. "The dynamics are very interesting," says state Sen. Jeanne Kohl, a Democrat who also teaches women's studies at the University of Washington.

"When you get a critical mass of women, it makes it easier for men to go along on issues like health care and child care." The presence of so many women in the state House, no doubt, is one reason Washington is the only state with a specific item in its anticrime budget addressing domestic violence.

"The process is different too," says Seattle political consultant Cathy Allen, who has worked for more than 40 candidates - most of them women - from Alaska to California. "They have longer meetings - some would say they belabor the issues - they ask more questions, there's more public involvement, they study the effects [of proposals] on as many different kinds of people as possible."

But in the end, as University of Washington political scientist David Olson puts it, "ideology usually trumps gender."

This is true in the Murray-Smith contest, one of the most hotly contested US Senate races in the country.

Both women are self-styled outsiders with working-class family backgrounds. Senator Murray is the up-from-the-political-trenches "mom in tennis shoes" (a derisive phrase used by one of her past electoral opponents that she adopted to good effect) who focuses on "people" issues such as education, Social Security, abortion rights, and veterans' benefits in a classic liberal sense.

The soft-spoken Murray is known for taking a conciliatory, rather than confrontational, approach to lawmaking. As a freshman and a member of the minority party in the Senate, she does not have a long list of accomplishments. But she did claim victory last week when Congress approved a plan to fund the hiring of 100,000 additional teachers over the next five to seven years, a measure she has pushed hard.

Representative Smith is a staunch conservative on issues like abortion and gun control, but she is no partisan lemming. She is one of only nine Republicans who opposed Newt Gingrich's reelection as House Speaker last year because of his admitted ethics violations. She is also one of the strongest advocates of campaign-finance reform on the Hill, refusing to take contributions from political-action committees.

Unlike the more mild-mannered Murray, Smith is known for her barbed comments. Having called on President Clinton to resign for his admitted moral lapses, she teases Murray for not being more critical of Mr. Clinton by suggesting that the incumbent has "traded in her tennis shoes for a pair of Hush Puppies." Friday, in their only public debate, Murray stressed her responsibility to remain impartial should the House vote for articles of impeachment and senators in effect act as jurors in the president's trial.

Murray is leading in the polls, but Smith has been consistently underestimated by pollsters and pundits throughout her career (she's never lost a race), and she typically ends up doing much better than expected. She counts heavily on "Linda's Army," a grass-roots group of about 35,000 contributors and campaign workers. And she could be helped by the presence on the ballot of "hot-button" initiatives dealing with late-term abortions, the medical use of marijuana, affirmative action, and minimum wage.

"The race is a lot closer than a lot of people are thinking," says Professor Olson. "I still think a colossal upset is quite conceivable."

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