Senate Women Face A Different Environment In 1998
By Judy Woodruff/CNN
WASHINGTON (July 7) -- Fresh off the public anger surrounding the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, women were elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992, the so-called "year of the woman," in numbers greater than ever before.
But in 1998, three senatorial pioneers face a very different political environment as they struggle to hang onto their seats.
Take Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who is fighting for re-election this year. Her re-election kickoff took her to seven cities in two days, but Murray says she enjoys the ride.
"Sometimes when you go to Washington, D.C., and you get so far away from the state, every week, you forget about all the lives you touch," Murray said. "And when you are campaigning you have a chance to remember, and to be reminded of everything you've done and it's really good."
Despite the warm reception Murray has received on the campaign trail, she is in a fight for her political life. The state to which she flies across the country each weekend and where her husband and children still live is by no means a sure bet to re-elect her in November.
A thousand miles south, in California, Sen. Barbara Boxer is campaigning hard, too. On a recent stop in the tony desert enclave of Palm Springs, Boxer talked Medicare to a group known to vote in big numbers: senior citizens. The pitch is a part of her own tough Senate re-election bid in the nation's most populous state.
Across the country, in the heartland of Illinois, Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun toured a school in Chicago recently. President Bill Clinton joined her as a guest on that round of her campaign, adding his support to her re-election bid.
The president has made Moseley-Braun's re-election a top political priority. He has adopted her legislation aimed at fixing crumbling schools and hiring teachers as the heart of his own education plan.
As the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, Moseley-Braun may be 1998's most endangered incumbent. Both symbolically and strategically, hers is a seat Democrats cannot afford to lose.
Responding to the sex-and-perjury allegations against the president
The political climate on Capitol hill has changed in the six years since the "year of the woman." In a development sparked in part by the Clarence Thomas hearings and the Senate Judiciary Committee's interrogation of Anita Hill, 1992 saw the number of women in the U.S. Senate triple, shaking up a largely white male institution that, in the expression of the day, just didn't get it.
Boxer remembers the impact made by the influx of female senators. "I will never forget that walk I made over the Senate with six of my female colleagues when the Senate wasn't going to look at Anita Hill's charges," Boxer said.
The election of Boxer and Sen. Dianne Feinstein transformed the face of the traditionally male California delegation overnight.
Boxer has been a liberal champion ever since, even when it meant plunging to controversy. It was she, more than any other senator, who spoke out in 1995 on allegations of sexual misconduct by a Senate veteran, Republican Bob Packwood of Oregon.
Now as Boxer faces re-election, allegation of sexual misconduct are a political issue again. But this time, the tables are turned, for the charges are against Boxer's most important ally, President Clinton. This time, Boxer is defending the accused.
"What's important to me is that justice be done," Boxer said, "and that people who are alleging that they were abused in anyway, you know, have a process, and that whatever that process is and the results of it is, has to be accepted. That's the way we operate in this country."
Process has become a buzz word for all the senators, the remedy they propose for the women who have leveled charges against the president. You hear it from Moseley-Braun, too, whose 1992 win was owed almost single-handedly to the repudiation of incumbent Democrat Alan Dixon, who had grilled Hill in the Thomas hearings.
Asked about parallels between the two sexual harassment cases, Moseley-Braun agreed there were similarities.
"Everybody wanted to see fairness in the way that Anita Hill was treated," she said. "I think the same thing applies here. Everybody, I think, wants to see fairness in the way that these women have been treated or are treated in the process."
Allegations or not, Moseley-Braun needs Clinton right now. Her six years in the Senate have been marked by stumbles, from a controversial summit with the late Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha in 1996 to her financial relationship with former fiance and campaign manager Jose Matthews. Recently, that relationship has come under scrutiny, both by the IRS and by lawyers for a travel agency suing Matthews. Her GOP opponent Peter Fitzgerald has wasted no time spotlighting those issues.
"We don't need to go through another campaign where we find out what the IRS probe is at the end of the campaign," Fitzgerald said on the campaign trail.
Moseley-Braun contends that it is a case of targeting women. "It's just that simple," she said. "I guess I'm bull's-eye, but we've all been targeted."
Domestic issues more important than scandals to constituents
Back in Washington state, Murray's journey has been more of a PTA president than feminist pioneer, winning election in 1992 as the proverbial mom in tennis shoes.
"The year of the women, however, I have to tell you, ought to be the year of people," Murray told her constituents in 1992. "Look at this room. It's not just women. It's not just men. It's young people. It's old people. It is enthusiasm. It is us taking our government back and we did it."
Murray's tenure in the Senate has been called slow and steady by supporters and unremarkable by detractors. With little flash, she sticks close to issues of concern to her state, like trade and environmental preservation.
Ironically, her stiffest challenge could come from another woman, one very different in style and in substance. Her challenger, Republican Rep. Linda Smith, is an iconoclast and a champion of changing the money culture in Washington. The latter forms the core of her campaign message.
"I decided not to hold the parties for the lobbyists," Smith said in a recent campaign stop. "All the invitations and all the parties would take three to four hours a day when I'm in D.C., and they were held at the same time that I would be voting. How could I focus on what I was doing, if I was running back and forth to parties?"
Smith's in-your-face style has made her a populist hero to some and a loose-talking rabble-rouser to others. She says she will take no political action committee money in her race, freeing her of the special-interest grip she claims has ensnared Murray, who Smith says discarded her tennis shoes and connection with the voters as soon as she hit Washington.
Being called a beltway sellout gets under Murray's skin. "No one would believe that," she replied. "I come home every weekend. My family is here. I was born and raised here, my husband was born and raised here. Our parents live here. Our families live here. I fight every day in Washington, D.C., for Washington state families."
For Murray, the allegations against Clinton are background noise so far. He is a popular figure in the state. But Murray said the presidential scandal is not top priority in the minds of Washington voters.
Boxer echoed Murray's view, saying her constituents appear to care little about the controversy that has consumed Washington for so many months. She does, however, expect to hear about it from State Treasurer Matt Fong, who will challenge Boxer in November.
"I'll tell you who mentioned it constantly, my opponents and the press. Constantly," Boxer said. "But I've held community meetings. I opened up the floor, there's 300, 400 people. They could ask me whatever they want. Never, ever once [do people ask]."
Family ties on the campaign trail
To be sure, the topic has more sensitivity for Boxer than her colleagues. Her daughter, Nicole, is married to Tony Rodham, the first lady's younger brother, making President Clinton part of her family.
"He's a wonderful uncle to my grandchild, and Hillary's a wonderful aunt to my grandchild, so I have a very soft spot for that relationship," Boxer said. "Now, having said that, I have a bright line between my work as a United States senator from the largest state in the union, and what the president has to do."
Moseley-Braun has family too: A son at school in St. Louis, whom she visits when touring southern Illinois. She is proud to show him what the women of 1992 have been able to accomplish.
"We've seen the Senate become a different place," she said. "I had to argue about ... and change the Senate around a Confederate flag issue when I first got here. Barbara Boxer held forward on the Packwood issue. Patty Murray has held forward on issues pertaining to children in the classroom. I think all of us have made a difference."
For her part, Murray says she is not worried about winning or losing her campaign, and no matter what, her priorities in life have remained unchanged.
"My kids are number one for me and my husband, making sure that our family is safe and secure," Murray said. "Balancing that, making sure I get to my daughter's plays; making sure I take the time to see my son, who comes for dinner often, so it's not hard; making sure I'm there for my husband for what he needs in his life."
But making history and making a difference is still part of Murray's journey. And during re-election season, that means climbing into yet another small plane to give yet another speech, heading for yet another stop on the campaign trail.