United States Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) smiles during an election night celebration in 2018 (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

She is a prod­uct of the flat­lands of the Mid­west, born in Indi­anapo­lis and edu­cat­ed at Mia­mi of Ohio, but Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell has sum­mit­ed Mount Rainier, the Grand Teton and Kil­i­man­jaro, and ascend­ed the pow­er struc­ture of Con­gress to chair the Sen­ate Com­merce, Sci­ence and Trans­porta­tion Committee.

Cantwell, D‑Washington, is on a roll of late.

Last sum­mer, for instance, she shep­herd­ed the bipar­ti­san CHIPS and Sci­ence Act through the last Con­gress. It’s a law that gives a big finan­cial boost to man­u­fac­ture of semi­con­duc­tors in the Unit­ed States. It is designed to restore Unit­ed States lead­er­ship on a tech­nol­o­gy pio­neered in this country.

More recent­ly, her defense of the great salmon fish­ery of Bris­tol Bay in Alas­ka has drawn atten­tion and commendation.

Cantwell was the first to sug­gest use of the Clean Water Act to block a half-mile-wide cop­per and gold mine devel­op­ers want to build between two of its prime salmon spawn­ing streams. The Biden admin­is­tra­tion deployed the 1972 law ear­li­er this month, effec­tive­ly block­ing con­struc­tion of the pro­posed Peb­ble Mine.

Although on oppo­site sides of the bat­tle over oil and gas drilling in the Arc­tic  Refuge, Cantwell and Sen­a­tor Lisa Murkows­ki, R‑Alaska, teamed to cam­paign for con­struc­tion of new heavy-duty ice­break­ers for use in Arc­tic waters.

Rus­sia has a fleet of such cut­ters. The Unit­ed States has just one remain­ing in oper­a­tion. The ice has bro­ken, so to speak, with con­struc­tion under­way on one ves­sel and design on a second.

Cantwell, six­ty-four, is not one of the usu­al sus­pects seen on net­works’ Sun­day morn­ing talk shows or shout­ing over talk radio. She gets stuff done by mas­ter­ing details, qui­et work with col­leagues and by serv­ing on a trio of A‑list Sen­ate com­mit­tees where leg­is­la­tion is put togeth­er – Com­merce, Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources, and Finance. She is the first Wash­ing­ton sen­a­tor in more than half-a-cen­tu­ry to serve on the Sen­ate Finance Committee.

A bit of his­to­ry is in order. Between 1953 and 1981, Wash­ing­ton was rep­re­sent­ed in Con­gress’ upper cham­ber by Sen­a­tors War­ren G. Mag­nu­son and Hen­ry M. “Scoop” Jack­son. The two Democ­rats were nick­named “the gold dust twins.”

Mag­gie was the state’s provider, ris­ing to chair the Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee and secur­ing such projects as the third pow­er­house at Grand Coulee Dam, elec­tric­i­ty for the North­west on cold, dark win­ter days.

Jack­son was the mas­ter leg­is­la­tor (and defense hawk)… the archi­tect of such mea­sures as the Nation­al Envi­ron­men­tal Pol­i­cy Act and the Jack­son-Vanik Amend­ment, which denied trade advan­tages to the Sovi­et Union and oth­er coun­tries that restrict­ed immigration.

The Mag­gie-Scoop mod­el is repli­cat­ed today.

Sen­a­tor Pat­ty Mur­ray, D‑Washington, chairs Sen­ate Appro­pri­a­tions, like Mag­gie, and is the first woman elect­ed pres­i­dent pro tem­pore of the Senate.

Maria Cantwell hosting a healthcare town hall
Maria Cantwell smiles as she lis­tens to a con­stituent ques­tion at her health­care town hall (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Cantwell is the leg­is­la­tor and pol­i­cy spe­cial­ist in a wide range of fields.

Cantwell came to Wash­ing­ton as an orga­niz­er of the short-lived 1984 pres­i­den­tial of Sen­a­tor Alan Cranston, D‑California.

She was elect­ed to the Wash­ing­ton Leg­is­la­ture in 1986, and quick­ly became a com­er, help­ing write the state’s Growth Man­age­ment Act while still in her first term. She moved up to the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in 1992.

Defeat­ed in the 1994 Repub­li­can land­slide, she became vice pres­i­dent for mar­ket­ing at Real­Net­works, mak­ing a mint which she invest­ed in a 2000 chal­lenge to Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton, a mem­ber of the Sen­ate Repub­li­can Lead­er­ship. She nar­row­ly defeat­ed Gor­ton by a mar­gin of 2,229 votes, a vic­to­ry which gave Democ­rats their fifti­eth seat in the Senate.

She made her ini­tial mark by bring­ing to pub­lic atten­tion mem­os and audio tapes by which traders for Enron — the bank­rupt, arro­gant, and extreme­ly cor­rupt Hous­ton ener­gy con­glom­er­ate — had manip­u­lat­ed elec­tric­i­ty prices in the West and pri­vate­ly boast­ed of their mis­deeds. The schemes were enti­tled “don­key punch,” “ping pong,” “Russ­ian roulette,” “spread play” and sidewinder.”

The Enron implo­sion showed Cantwell’s way of oper­at­ing. She mas­ters details. A senior aide was assigned over­sight in dis­man­tling of the Taco­ma Smelter, long a prime source of Puget Sound-area air pol­lu­tion. He dis­cov­ered the boss, too, was metic­u­lous­ly track­ing smelter cleanup. With a series of oil train explo­sions and derail­ments – one in the Colum­bia Gorge – Cantwell became a spe­cial­ist in vapors that can cause a tank car to go up in flames and grit­ty smoke.

Sen­a­tor Ted Stevens, R‑Alaska, tried to slip a pro­vi­sion in the 2005 defense autho­riza­tion bill, open­ing Alaska’s Arc­tic Refuge to oil drilling. Cantwell (and Sen­a­tor Joe Lieber­man of Con­necti­cut) caught it and fil­i­bus­tered the bill.

Stevens explod­ed on the Sen­ate floor, threat­en­ing to come to Wash­ing­ton and cam­paign against Cantwell. The drilling pro­vi­sion was dropped.

Joe Biden greets Maria Cantwell
Joe Biden greets Unit­ed States Sen­a­tor Maria Cantwell at a cam­paign event in Octo­ber 2014 (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Stevens cam­paigned in Taco­ma and raised mon­ey for Repub­li­can chal­lenger Mike McGav­ick. Cantwell was reelect­ed in 2006 with fifty-sev­en per­cent of the vote. New­ly in the major­i­ty, Sen­ate Demo­c­ra­t­ic lead­ers put her on the Finance Committee.

Cantwell has a gen­er­al­ly pro­gres­sive vot­ing record in the Sen­ate. She vot­ed against con­firm­ing U.S. Supreme Court Chief Jus­tice John Roberts, against renom­i­nat­ing Ben Bernanke to be Fed Chair, and against bail­ing out the banks in 2008 with TARP, diverg­ing from Mur­ray on each vote. Incur­ring anger from some Democ­rats, she sup­port­ed the 2002 res­o­lu­tion which autho­rized deploy­ment of U.S. armed forces against the Sad­dam Hus­sein regime in Iraq.

The “gen­tle lady from Wash­ing­ton” can be tough. As Con­gress wrote the Dodd-Frank Act, tight­en­ing reg­u­la­tion of Wall Street in wake of the Great Reces­sion, Cantwell insist­ed it pro­vide for a con­sumer pro­tec­tion bureau. She made it a con­di­tion for pass­ing the leg­is­la­tion out of the Sen­ate Finance Com­mit­tee. She became an expert in the manip­u­la­tion of deriv­a­tives, finan­cial con­tracts that derive their val­ue from under­ly­ing assets or groups of assets.

She has pros­pered even with the Sen­ate under Repub­li­can con­trol. Cantwell amend­ed a 2019 pub­lic lands bill to put 311,000 acres of Washington’s Methow Val­ley off lim­its to min­ing exploration.

A Cana­di­an firm, respon­si­ble for a tail­ings dam col­lapse in British Colum­bia, had want­ed to drill in the Okanogan-Wenatchee Nation­al Forest.

The Repub­li­cans sought to “green­wash” records of two Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, Sens. Cory Gard­ner, R‑Colorado, and Steve Daines, R‑Montana, with a 2020 vehi­cle, the Great Amer­i­can Out­doors Act.

Cantwell was, at the time, rank­ing Demo­c­rat on the Ener­gy and Nat­ur­al Resources Com­mit­tee. She put into the bill lan­guage pro­vid­ing per­ma­nent autho­riza­tion and rev­enue source for the fed­er­al Land and Water Con­ser­va­tion Fund, which buys up endan­gered wild­lands and recre­ation areas using mon­ey from off­shore oil and gas leas­ing. The Fund was a long-ago cre­ation of Sen­a­tor Jackson.

Cantwell made a trip to Chi­na after her first reelec­tion, com­ing away wor­ried that the Mid­dle King­dom was get­ting a jump on twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry “clean” ener­gy tech­nolo­gies, solar pan­els and wind tur­bines. She has since been a relent­less advo­cate and was a force for includ­ing clean ener­gy sub­si­dies as a major pro­vi­sion of the Infla­tion Reduc­tion Act.

Cantwell is no glad­han­der. She tours the Wash­ing­ton econ­o­my when back home, insist­ing on copi­ous brief­ing. She is an exact­ing boss.

One leg­isla­tive intern, set to leave after a summer’s work, dis­cov­ered that two senior aides were depart­ing the same day. Such were ten­sions between can­di­date and her com­mu­ni­ca­tions staff, dur­ing Cantwell’s 2000 cam­paign, that body aide Gavin Lodge gained a nick­name “the human firewall.”

She does get around and gives pri­or­i­ty to this Washington.

One recent spring, Cantwell passed up the Grid­iron Din­ner in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in order to spoon out pota­to sal­ad in the chow line at Pacif­ic Coun­ty Democ­rats’ annu­al crab feed, the old­est con­tin­u­ous polit­i­cal event in the state.

In today’s bit­ter­ly divid­ed Con­gress, the emp­ty drums bang loud­est. A major­i­ty of the Senate’s nine­teen women, how­ev­er, con­tin­ue to col­lab­o­rate and demon­strate adult behav­ior. Cantwell doesn’t make noise. She makes policy.

She may burn the can­dle from three ends, but Cantwell is a base­ball enthu­si­ast. She became the first law­mak­er “of the female per­sua­sion” – to use Dwight Eisenhower’s notable phrase – to play in the annu­al con­gres­sion­al soft­ball game, which rais­es mon­ey for char­i­ty and pits Democ­rats against Republicans.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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