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Thursday, September 14, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Cantwell, Senn contrast in style, share views

Seattle Times staff reporter

One is a high-tech millionaire who boasts a meteoric climb to wealth and political success, the other a scrappy populist who made a name for herself standing up for the Little Guy.

U.S. Senate candidates Maria Cantwell and Deborah Senn would likely cast identical votes on issues that matter to Democrats. They share Midwest, blue-collar roots. But both have dramatically different political and personal backgrounds.

Whoever wins Tuesday's primary will face the biggest challenge of her political career: defeating Republican Sen. Slade Gorton.

Cantwell, a former congresswoman and state lawmaker, promotes her firsthand experience in Seattle's dot-com world - and her financial independence. She has been able to cash out $5.1 million in stock from an executive job at RealNetworks to charter a plush campaign tour bus and pay for television ads that have aired statewide since June.

She said she would focus on streamlining government and fighting for campaign-finance reform, something her opponents find ironic for a candidate who's bankrolling her own campaign. But Cantwell says it's better that she write her own checks than accept them from special interests. She has sworn off money from political-action committees.

If elected, Cantwell would be the only high-tech millionaire in the U.S. Senate - emblematic of Seattle's evolution in the New Economy.

Senn, the fiery state insurance commissioner, couldn't afford to take her message to the airwaves until two weeks ago. But she has been campaigning for more than a year and has key endorsements from labor unions, legislators and grass-roots groups providing an army of volunteers.

Well-known for her revival like testimonials on the campaign trail, Senn portrays herself as a tireless advocate for consumers. She trots out patients she has assisted in their fights with insurance companies.

She says she would use her expertise in health care to try to lower the cost of prescription drugs and create a national patients' bill of rights.

Senn's triumphs are largely splashy, one-woman shows. Cantwell's successes have come more deliberately, through collaboration and sometimes compromise, making her politics hard to pin down.

Many similarities

As different as they are in personality and technique, they are remarkably alike on issues.

Both want to see prescription drugs covered by Medicare.

Both oppose any breakup of Microsoft.

Neither wants restrictions on abortion, and they both want smaller class sizes in schools.

Even in their uncertainty, they can sound the same. For months, they were vague about dams and salmon, a touchy issue for Democrats who are running statewide. But Senn and Cantwell recently came out firmly against removing Snake River dams - a position that Gorton has long agreed with.

They differ only on trade. Cantwell supports permanant trade status for China. Senn, concerned with labor conditions and human-rights issues overseas, is more hesitant.

Senn says she would vote for continued renewal of most-favored-nation status for China, "hold their feet to the fire" on human rights and approve permanant trade status later.

Cantwell thinks of herself as a "New Democrat," someone in the mold of President Clinton, more conservative than some members of her party on issues such as trade and spending.

Senn, who counts Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as a role model, calls herself a traditional Democrat and has long aligned herself with liberal interest groups.

Fought insurance companies

Senn, 51, has spent the past seven years as insurance commissioner battling insurance companies that she regulates, claiming they are fraudulent, too bureaucratic and care more about saving money than saving lives.

She has passed rules to help protect domestic violence victims from insurance-rate increases. She fought insurance companies in court to save coverage of chiropractic and acupuncture. She helped speed cleanup of toxic-waste sites covered by insurance.

Savvy in public-relations, she has elevated an obscure statewide office into a bully pulpit.

Senn has a detailed grasp of the health-care system. She has held hearings across the state on prescription-drug prices, toxic-waste cleanups, Medicare and other issues, some of which she oversees, some of which she doesn't.

"I have spent my entire political life standing up and doing the right thing," Senn said.

"Often people disagree with me. Sometimes I'm not right. I'm probably not your conventional politician."

Until she was elected to office in 1992, Senn had worked in the background of the political arena, first as an environmental prosecutor in Illinois, then representing consumers and small businesses in utility cases for the state of Illinois. She later worked in Olympia as a legislative staff attorney for a telecommunications committee and lobbyist for women's advocacy groups.

In 1990, she lost a bid for the Legislature. Two years later, in the so-called Year of the Woman, she ran for insurance commissioner and won.

Re-elected in 1996, she likes to point out that she has twice received a million votes, more than Gorton has ever received.

Senn has used her negotiating skills as a member of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, a bipartisan group that gathers commissioners to work on new laws.

"Deborah is someone who, when she takes on a project you can be certain that it's going to get done," said Donna Lee Williams, Delaware's insurance commissioner, a Republican. "And it will get done in a process that is open and fair."

Still, one supporter wonders whether Senn's style might be too abrasive for the clubby U.S. Senate.

"Deborah may be right about something like health care, but will she be able to bring other people to the table to agree that she is right and therefore vote her way?" asked Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park, who has endorsed Senn. "That would be the one question I have."

What she lacks in legislative experience, Senn says, she more than makes up in her work as insurance commissioner. She said she has adopted rules that require public scrutiny, similar to passing legislation.

"If I hadn't been able to put together a coalition to support these rules, they'd have me in court," Senn said of insurers. "I've got 55 members of the Legislature endorsing me. I've got people who served with (Cantwell) endorsing me."

Senn traces her interest in politics to her mother, Millie, who spent much of her childhood in a Chicago orphanage after her father died and her mother couldn't support the family on her own.

Child in Chicago

When Senn was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, her mother would tell dinnertime stories about the orphanage. Senn would run from the dinner table in tears.

She says she couldn't bear to hear the story about how her mother, at age 16, was hit so hard by a supervisor that she lost hearing in one ear for two weeks. Millie Senn told similar tales about other children.

"There's a part of me that really empathized with these people and what they suffered," Senn said. "In many ways that shaped my desire to do public service."

Her family lived in a part of town known for its landscape of dense apartment buildings and concrete. Senn's bedroom window faced a brick wall.

Her Russian-immigrant father was a butcher and a clarinet player and her mother was, for a short time, a dancer who painted herself gold, wore fancy feather boas and performed in the 1933 World's Fair. Her grandmother immigrated to the United States from Belarus with $15 in her pocket.

Senn's apartment building was near a private country club. The Senn family couldn't afford to join, but that didn't matter. The club excluded Jews.

Senn was a regular at Chicago's oldest synagogue, which advocated community service and public action. Her heritage remains important to her.

As insurance commissioner she successfully fought for a measure to help Holocaust victims file insurance claims. She once followed her family tree to Belarus, personally tracking down people with her family's original name, Semenovsky.

Senn started as an acting major in the University of Illinois-Champaign, switched to history and went on to earn a graduate degree and, in 1976, a law degree from Loyola University in Chicago.

Pollution lawyer, reporter

She was a staff attorney for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, prosecuting air- and water-pollution cases, then worked for the state of Illinois representing consumers and small businesses in utility cases.

In 1983, she followed her husband, Rudi Bertschi, from Chicago to Alaska, where she worked as a private attorney and became a news reporter specializing in on-your-side consumer reports. She also did movie reviews.

The couple moved to Seattle two years later. She and her husband share a passion for mountaineering. Instead of rings, they exchanged climbers' chocks strung on a necklace when they were married. Bertschi, a teacher at a Jewish school in Bellevue, has two adult sons from a previous marriage and a 3-year-old grandchild.

After living in several apartments in Seattle, Senn and Bertschi had a house built in the Leschi neighborhood, one near Lake Washington with a garage and a view of Mount Rainier.

"I spent my childhood looking at a brick wall," Senn said. "Every place I have lived in Seattle has had a view."

Long interest in politics

Politics have been a part of Cantwell's life for most of her 41 years. The only time she strayed was when she lost her seat in Congress and began working at RealNetworks, earning the millions that has allowed her to jump back into politics.

She won a key election in 1992 to represent the 1st Congressional District.

When Republican newcomer Rick White beat her two years later, she joined RealNetworks, a Seattle company that developed live sound and video technology over the Internet, after meeting the company's founder through connections in Congress.

As vice president of the consumer and e-commerce division, she helped shepherd the company's growth from a dozen to nearly 1,000 employees.

To restore faith in system

Cantwell says she got back into politics after working with 20-somethings she found to be disillusioned about government.

"Our political system seems to be written off by a whole generation of young people and a public that has become so cynical about it's ability to get things done," she said.

Cantwell wants to make it her mission to restore faith in government. She also wants to represent the New Economy.

But questions about Internet privacy and RealNetworks' ability to track consumers' online habits have dogged her campaign.

So has her money.

Since she is the biggest contributor to her own campaign, Cantwell often finds herself fielding questions about her base of support. She has already set a state record in personal contributions and is on pace to break Sen. Patty Murray's 1998 record for campaign funding in a statewide campaign, $5.6 million.

Legislative `Steel Magnolia'

As a former state legislator and congresswoman, Cantwell says she has more experience than Senn passing laws.

In Olympia, she was one of six women dubbed the "Steel Magnolias" for authoring the state's complicated Growth Management Act in 1990. She also helped adopt legislation that tightened regulation of nursing homes.

But Cantwell didn't adopt a trademark issue during her two terms in the Legislature. A few Republican senators said they barely recalled hearing her name across the Rotunda.

In Congress, where she represented North Seattle, South Snohomish County and Redmond, Cantwell was among the last in Washington's delegation to support NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). She did not support Clinton's health-care plan, saying she wasn't convinced it would control rising costs.

She hedged and then voted for Clinton's controversial budget plan in 1993 - a vote that was later used against her in her defeat.

Blocked Clipper Chip

While critical of the seniority rules and the congressional "old boys" network, Cantwell worked to position herself within it. She used a little-known Foreign Affairs subcommittee as a launching pad for technology concerns.

One of her biggest coups was blocking a Clinton administration proposal to build surveillance capabilities, the so-called Clipper Chip, into computers, allowing government to access personal information.

With other freshmen in Congress, she worked to streamline government. She slashed her own office budget by 25 percent - a move that probably meant more in principle than real savings for the taxpayer because of the way money was distributed.

"Maria is good at building bridges and finding resources so when she's in a position of needing to call on someone for assistance she can get people motivated to do what needs to be done," said Larry West, who was Cantwell's spokesman in Congress.

Cantwell's days in Congress didn't seem that far out of reach from her Midwest upbringing.

Grew up in Indianapolis

Her Indianapolis home was a gathering spot for neighborhood kids who befriended the five Cantwell children. The girls and boys raced through the house and played touch football and kickball in the large, grassy empty lot next door. Rose Cantwell, Maria's mother, would leave her bedroom window open to keep tabs on them, shouting at children if she heard swear words on the field.

The Cantwell home was also a gathering place for political junkies.

Politics was the frequent breakfast, lunch and dinner-table conversation topic. Politician friends of her father, Paul Cantwell, a county commissioner and two-term city councilman, often dropped by. Ted Kennedy once came over during a ward meeting there.

Cantwell counts her father as a major influence in her life, citing his commitment to public service as one of the reasons she wanted to get into politics. When he died three years ago, she was devastated.

Cantwell attended Catholic school, though she says she no longer attends Mass. She was active in Catholic youth groups and in youth government. Once, she was selected to represent her high school in a citywide youth government program.

The first in her family to attend college, she was president of the Young Democrats at Miami University of Ohio and received a degree in public administration in 1981.

She worked briefly for her father helping him track his investments in several small oil wells in Kentucky, then went to work on the campaign of former Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer who, at the time, was running for governor of Ohio. (He's now a television talk-show host.)

"I admired him," Cantwell said. "He had been mayor and was a very charismatic spokesperson for the issues of that time, and I was happy to go work for him."

In 1984, she moved to Washington state as a paid field director for Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential campaign. She met Ron Dotzauer, who was working on Henry "Scoop" Jackson's Senate campaign, and a year later he hired her as his first employee at his new public-relations firm, Northwest Strategies, which became a force in many political campaigns and issues.

Elected to Legislature at 28

Cantwell rented an apartment in Mountlake Terrace and led the charge for a new library there. After succeeding, she ran for an open seat in the Legislature. At age 28, Cantwell, who has never been married, became the youngest woman elected to the Legislature at that time.

Six years later she was elected to Congress.

Today, Cantwell may has millions but she lives in a modest suburban home in Edmonds with her mother and a diabetic dog named Chuck.

She is uncomfortable with the wealth she amassed at RealNetworks. She's even uncomfortable talking about being uncomfortable with her money:

"I guess I just don't walk around and spend a lot of time thinking about it in ways that other people might think about it."

Cantwell's supporters say she may not appear as fired up about issues as Senn, but they insist she's equally as passionate.

"She's always been fairly logical rather than emotional in her approach to things," said former U.S. Rep. Al Swift, who served in the House with Cantwell.

State Democratic Party Chairman Paul Berendt said voters will look beyond style when choosing who they think can put up the best race against Gorton.

"I think people look at values," he said. "People are going to have to go down the list of issues that are important to them and ask which of these people can best deliver on the issues."

Dionne Searcey's phone message number is 206-464-2145. Her e-mail address is dsearcey@seattletimes.com.

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Deborah Senn

Age: 51.

Hometown: Seattle.

Education: Bachelor's degree in history, master's degree in political science from the University of Illinois; law degree from Loyola University.

Political experience: State insurance commissioner, 1993-present; former lobbyist for women's advocacy groups.

Work experience: Environmental prosecutor in Illinois, 1976-78; represented consumers and small businesses in utility cases for the state of Illinois, 1978-85; legislative staff attorney for a telecommunications committee in the Washington Legislature, 1985-89.

Hobbies: Mountain climbing, motorcycle riding, skiing.

Interesting fact: She works out on a NordicTrack in the basement of her Queen Anne campaign office that U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, brought to her to use as a stress-burner during the primary season.

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Maria Cantwell

Age: 41.

Hometown: Edmonds.

Education: bachelor's degree in public education, Miami University of Ohio.

Political experience: State representative, 1987-1993; U.S. representative, 1993-95.

Work experience: Northwest Strategies, 1985-86; RealNetworks executive, 1995-2000.

Hobbies: Watching baseball, movies.

Interesting fact: She is a fan of hip Olympia all-girl trio Sleater-Kinney and owns a copy of the band's latest release.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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