Last stand for Cyanide Slade?

An ambivalence about power may be Cantwell's electoral ally.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE Seattle Weekly covers lampoons Senator Slade Gorton as Custer the Indian fighter, standing amid fallen comrades and fending off spears and arrows at his own Little Big Horn. That image, which graced an issue featuring Nina Shapiro's in-depth look at Slade's anti-Indian politics, gains a more general relevance in light of last week's primary election.

Gorton is under fire from many sides. Not only have Native Americans launched a renewed and well-financed campaign against their political archenemy, but the 72-year-old senior senator must now reestablish his relevance to an electorate that has known him—or not—since "Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House and Sputnik was circling the earth," in the memorable words of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Joel Connelly.

Without question, Gorton's political career in Washington has been long and productive; he has enjoyed success, defeat, and resurrection unusual at his level. His brilliant mind, lawyerly craftiness, political toughness, and willingness to hammer wedges for political gain have brought him power. He has exhibited all the skills that would make him an ideal contestant on Survivor; he's unconcerned, ultimately, with being popular or charming, only with being the last one standing.

But the electorate has always been a bit uneasy with Gorton: He was elected to the Senate, dumped, then reelected. While no religious-right conservative, many voters originally expected him to be more moderate on the issues, more in the mold of Republican Governor (and later Senator) Dan Evans. They were disappointed that Slade was so comfortable with Reagan's far-rightward swing and more than willing to bash environmentalists and city dwellers in order to divide for political gain. He's a politician who doesn't seem quite one of us, even with his sweaters and attempts to look folksy. And in spite of his recently ditched glasses (laser surgery!), he still comes off as an awkward, owlish geek with a political mean streak, a kind of Bill Gates without the boyish charm.

THE QUESTION IS: Has Gorton grown too powerful to dump?

Washingtonians aren't too impressed by power for its own sake. In 1980, Gorton convinced the electorate to retire one of the Senate's most powerful men—one of the nation's most powerful men—Senator Warren G. Magnuson. Despite Maggie's legendary career and towering achievements, Gorton convinced voters it was time for a generational change. Gorton's backers argued that tired old New Deal pork barreler Maggie was ready for pasture, despite all the good he did for Boeing, trade, healthcare, and the environment, not to mention the state's infrastructure. Besides, they said, vote Maggie out and we'll still have Scoop. But Senator Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson soon died, rather inconveniently. Thus, Washington state went from having the two most senior senators in Washington, DC—senators in the majority party—to having the two most junior senators in the minority party (Gorton and Evans). As if that power drain were not enough, in 1994 Speaker of the House Tom Foley was tossed out by the voters because they felt, despite his power, that their congressman had lost touch with his state.

The primary results suggest that Gorton's seniority and accumulated power are not enough to convince us that he deserves another term—43 percent of the primary vote is not a ringing endorsement of Gorton's Senate career. For one thing, people here tend to get uncomfortable with people who get too comfortable with power. We like our primaries—and our options—to be open. And we're often tempted by fresh faces and fresh starts: We've given the US mainland its first Asian-American governor (Gary Locke) and one of its first elected women governors (Dixie Lee Ray). Change often looks good to us if it breaks some new ground.

In that light, Maria Cantwell offers some tempting possibilities, as Senn would have. First, Cantwell is a politician who was highly and widely regarded during her one term in Congress; she became a national media icon for the "year of the woman" in 1992, which saw real movement in gender power in politics. Imagine the tokenism-smashing statement it would make if Washington were the first state in history to be represented by two women in the United States Senate. (OK, now imagine that Hillary Clinton is also in that Senate, and that the Democrats have regained control—that's the potential 2000 offers.)

More importantly, Democrats Cantwell and Patty Murray not only know how to get things done within the congressional boy's club, but they could help bring more focus to important domestic issues that are front-burner with the people—education and healthcare, for example. By contrast, Cyanide Slade seems the purveyor of an old, industry-first politics that we might be ready to outgrow.

And while Slade has positioned himself as "the senator from Microsoft," Cantwell has actually lived the life of the new economy, benefited enormously from it, and learned how to use its lessons in the "real" world. Her incredibly successful primary campaign must in part be due to her applying the focus, smarts, and quick action that building RealNetworks required. She knows what it's like to work with, and against, the Microsofts of this world. If that suggests a new style of leadership, and a new arena that it is important to understand and embrace, then Cantwell is well qualified.

MANY WASHINGTONIANS want Slade gone—especially Seattle's liberals, for whom the Custer image has great appeal: Slade getting his comeuppance after years of clever attacks, miraculous escapes, and untamed arrogance. But he and Cantwell must pay attention to an uneasy independent middle that is intrigued with change (bad for Gorton), but will need to be persuaded with a strong case made with some subtlety (tricky for Cantwell). Cantwell can't rely on people seeing that Slade is ripe for retirement; she must make that apparent by embodying the alternative, and continuing to draw contrasts between the old ways we know best and the new ways we'd rather try.

We've got it covered! Check out our Election 2000 Special Coverage pages.

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