Politics before sisterhood
Seattle Times Washington bureau
WASHINGTON — The state's top three politicians have something in common: They are women, they are Democrats and none of them has endorsed the Democratic presidential front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
All three — Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Gov. Christine Gregoire — have, in the past, stressed the importance of electing more women politicians, and have benefited from women's political-action committees (PACs).
But none is ready to sign on formally with the first credible woman candidate for president, even though Murray and Cantwell serve in the Senate with Clinton, a New York Democrat.
They all have their reasons.
Yet, with the primary season set to start Jan. 5 in Iowa, several women senators already have endorsed. Three Democrats, including Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., back Clinton; Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is Clinton's campaign chairwoman.
Cantwell rejected the idea that women should support Clinton on the basis of gender. "Aren't we at the point where we can be individuals?" Cantwell asked.
The answer is yes and no, according to politicians and women political activists.
Cantwell and Murray were part of "The Year of the Woman," 1992, that swept several women into Congress and the Senate. Cantwell was elected to the House that year, and Murray leaped from the state Senate to the U.S. Senate. In Washington, D.C., the atmosphere among women's political groups such as EMILY's List was euphoric.
Murray has highlighted the need for more women in high office, including the White House.
"I still stand by that," she said last week.
What is the obligation among women politicians to support one of their own who has a viable chance to become president — a woman who is leading the pack?
"It seems odd that with these women who campaigned on breaking the glass ceiling, that they're not ready to jump on board," said Deb Walsh, who runs Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics.
"They are part of the Senate women's group who go to dinner each month and promised to support each other," Walsh said. "We're not at the point where gender doesn't play a role."
Obligations to Clinton go beyond gender. She has raised thousands of dollars for several women in tight races in the past few years.
Clinton helped raise money to pay off Cantwell's 2000 Senate campaign debt in 2002. One of Clinton's PACs supported Cantwell's re-election last year, and Clinton visited the state during the campaign.
But Cantwell points out that many of the other candidates came to her aid, too.
"All these people came and campaigned for me," she said. "I don't think it should be your first instinct after you got re-elected to say 'Thank you' and then endorse one of them over the others."
Sen. Barack Obama came to Washington state twice on Cantwell's behalf. Sen. Chris Dodd raised money for her from his Wall Street contributors. And Sen. Joseph Biden has been Cantwell's mentor and adviser on the war in Iraq.
And then there is Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
"He drove over the Cascades for an event I didn't get to," Cantwell said. "My God, he drove to Yakima."
Cantwell said she wants to see which of the candidates is most in tune with the Northwest on social programs and the environment.
"We're more progressive than many areas," she said. "I want to see which of them will support our interests here."
Gregoire said she is waiting to learn the fate of Richardson — a fellow governor — before deciding who to endorse.
Richardson ran the Democratic Governors' Association in 2005-06 and led Democrats to retake a majority of the statehouses last year.
"I don't think many Democratic governors have endorsed anyone," Gregoire said, adding that once Richardson either drops out or wins the nomination, more governors will announce their preferences.
Murray, as she did in 2004, is not endorsing anyone at this stage. Instead, she is focused on her role as a new member of the Democratic Senate leadership team.
"I'm excited about Hillary's campaign, and she is a terrific candidate," Murray said. But she added, "My job is to count votes in the Senate. I'm not taking sides."
Recent polls show Clinton leading in the state, although Obama also is popular here and has led in fundraising.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Tacoma, is Obama's state chair. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, and King County Executive Ron Sims are co-chairing Clinton's state campaign.
Arnie Arnesen, a Democrat who in 1992 was the first woman nominated from a major party to run for governor of New Hampshire, rejected any notion that gender should play a role in picking a candidate.
"It's not about breasts," she said.
Political analyst Charlie Cook, who publishes The Cook Political Report, said endorsements don't much matter, anyway — particularly in a solidly Democratic state that's not expected to play a big role in the 2008 election.
"I don't think Hillary goes to bed at night sobbing that she doesn't have Cantwell or Murray," Cook said.
Besides, he said, "It's Washington state."
Alicia Mundy: 202-662-7457 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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