Murray wants more women in Congress

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Patty Murray says that if Congress had more women, there might be a plan in place to deal with the nation's $15 trillion debt.

While the supercommittee she helped lead failed last month in its bid to offer a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction plan, Murray says "it may have come out very differently" if she hadn't been the only woman on the 12-member panel.

Women, she says, understand compromises, and Murray wants to bring more of them on board. The veteran Washington Democrat is in a good position to make that happen.

Since becoming her party's chief recruiter for Senate candidates a year ago, Murray has lined up five new women to run in 2012. On the campaign trail, they will be joined by six Democratic women who are up for re-election.

With at least 11 female candidates, it promises to be a record year for the party. Women would comprise a third of the party's candidates.

"It is going to be an historic year," said Murray, a 61-year-old fourth-term senator.

The previous record of 10 candidates came in 1992, in what became known as the Year of the Woman. Murray, who got elected that year, said it was a time when "no one thought women could run or win."

She campaigned as a "mom in tennis shoes," a pre-school teacher who got introduced to politics by rallying 13,000 women to save a pre-school program that had been targeted for budget cuts.

"Like any mom, I got mad and I went out and started making phone calls and organizing women," Murray said at a news conference this week. And she said it taught her "that when you feel passionately about something and you go out and work hard, you can make a difference."

Now, as the first woman to head the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, or DSCC, and one of her party's power brokers, Murray said voters will have a prime chance next year "of really changing the dynamics" of Congress, which suffers from abysmal ratings.

"We need diversity in the Senate, and we need people who come to the job who really want to make a difference for their country," she said. "And when I look out across the country, I see women who understand that."

Only 17 of the 100 U.S. senators are women.

Of the six Democratic women facing re-election, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri is the only one in a toss-up race. Easy wins are predicted for Maria Cantwell of Washington, Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Murray has recruited women to run in Hawaii, Wisconsin, Nevada, Massachusetts and North Dakota. But in Connecticut, she is siding with third-term Rep. Chris Murphy over his challenger, Susan Bysiewicz, the former secretary of state.

Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report, said Democrats are trying to overplay the issue. She noted that Republican women are running for the Senate in Maine, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nebraska and Connecticut.

"They are not without women candidates, which I guess is what to me the DSCC is trying to suggest, which is not necessarily true," Duffy said.

Beginning in August, Murray had to juggle her DSCC role with her job as co-chairwoman of Congress' so-called supercommittee, which disbanded Nov. 21. She said in an interview that the special panel could have benefited from more women, "who I think really understand compromise and getting things done."

"You want the practical answer to why we would get things done?" she asked. "Because we are multi-taskers: We have to pick up the kids and get dinner and, you know, help with the homework and get things done, and we don't mess around. And so we come into politics the same way: We have a task, it's hard, but we make decisions, and we get things done."

In her recruiting, Murray said she has "looked for the kinds of people who had great stories to tell." She introduced three candidates at her news conference at the Sewall-Belmont House and Museum on Capitol Hill, the former home of the National Woman's Party.

Murray's choice in Hawaii, third-term Rep. Mazie Hirono, was born in Japan and would be the Senate's first female immigrant and first Asian-American woman. As the daughter of a compulsive gambler and alcoholic, Hirono said her family sometimes did without food. She told the story of coming to the United States with one suitcase, and she said she can identify with economic hardship.

"That's something I know about personally," Hirono said.

In Wisconsin, Murray is backing seventh-term Rep. Tammy Baldwin, who would be the nation's first openly gay senator. Baldwin, the first woman elected to Congress from her state, was raised by her maternal grandparents. At age 9, she spent three months in the hospital and her grandparents had to pay the bill because an insurance company wouldn't count a grandchild as a qualified dependent.

"No family should have to go through that," Baldwin said.

And in Nevada, Murray is supporting seventh-term Rep. Shelley Berkley, the granddaughter of immigrants who came to the United States to escape the Holocaust, unable to speak any English. Her father worked as a waiter in upstate New York in the early 1960s, then packed up the family to look for a similar job in California. They stopped in Las Vegas for a night and never left. She said she understands the tough times in her state too.

"I've got the highest unemployment rate in the country and I've got the highest mortgage foreclosure rate. ... I have three priorities: jobs, jobs, jobs," she said.