Patty Murray once said, "Throughout my life I've been underestimated. But it's easier to score a goal when they're trying to block everyone else" (Pope & Modie). Murray turned an early insult — "You’re just a mom in tennis shoes" — into a badge of honor. Her political career began on a suburban school board in 1987. A year later she was a Washington State Senator. By 1992, she was a U.S. Senator, by 2022 she was running for her sixth term and had become the nation’s third-highest ranking senator, and in 2023 she was elected Senate president pro tempore, the first woman to hold the position.
From Bothell to Pullman
Patricia Lynn Johns Murray was born on October 11, 1950, in Bothell, 20 miles northeast of Seattle. Her mother, the former Beverley McLaughlin, stayed at home and took care of the family’s seven children, including Patty and her twin, Peggy, who became a teacher. Beverley Johns cleaned St. Brendan’s Church before mass on Sundays and the children went to the parish school. Their father, David L. Johns, who received a Purple Heart during World War II, managed a five-and-dime store. While the family took food to local families in need, they didn’t spend any more than they had to on themselves. Murray later said that she and her siblings never went to see a doctor despite facing their share of childhood illnesses.
In her teens, her father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Within a few years, he was too disabled to work, and the family fell on hard times. They received help from the Veteran’s Administration and relied for a while on food stamps. Beverley went back to work, attended a vocational school and became an accountant.
Patty graduated in the top 10 of her class from Bothell High School in 1968, where she played flute and piccolo in the band and served as secretary for a girls’ service club. All seven of the Johns children were expected to put themselves through college, and all of them would get college degrees. Patty went to Washington State University, where she majored in Recreation and received a Physical Education degree, and where she was so annoyed that female students were required to wear skirts or dresses while eating dinner in the student cafeteria that she drew up a successful petition to get rid of the rule. She also spent a semester as a volunteer at a Seattle veterans' hospital. Many patients were people her age returning from Vietnam with injuries and psychiatric problems. Years later she would become the first woman to sit on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
In 1972, she graduated from Washington State and married Rob Murray, a fellow student. She worked as a secretary to pay the bills while he finished his degree. They moved back to Western Washington, living in the Seattle suburb of Shoreline, and Rob worked for the Coast Guard. The couple had two children, a son Randy and a daughter Sara.
In Defense of Stay-at-Home Mothers
In 1981, Murray protested to Shoreline Community College trustees for raising the cost of the school’s parent-education program and preschool. Describing herself as a mother who had chosen to stay at home and raise her children, she said she and other mothers relied on the support of the programs to be good parents. She drove to Olympia with her two children in tow to lobby the state legislature to restore the funding. There, a legislator told her she had 'a nice story,' but also that she couldn’t make a difference and that she was "just a mom in tennis shoes" (Suderman). Not only did she succeed in getting the funding restored, but she also would turn that patronizing description into a winning political slogan for decades to come.
She was a member of the PTA, founded a statewide group called the Organization for Parent Education, and lobbied for women’s issues as a member of Washington Women United. She organized a group of 400 administrators, school board members, teachers, and students who went to Olympia to rally for better support for education, declaring that they were tired of "the bake sale approach" (Bond) to school funding.
In June 1983, she became secretary of Washington Women United, and by September she was raising money at a garage sale to help finance her own campaign for the Shoreline school board. She lost by 300 votes — the only election she would ever lose — but was appointed to replace her opponent after his death. She also helped a friend run for the Washington State Senate. The friend lost, but Murray thought she might run for state senate herself someday. In 1984 she was hired as an instructor in early childhood education as an associate faculty member at Shoreline Community College.
An Underdog in Olympia
In 1987, Murray ran unopposed for the school board, but resigned in 1988 after she defeated a Republican incumbent for a seat in the Washington State Senate. Clearly the underdog, she had nevertheless campaigned on a tax-reform package that included a state income tax, an idea that had never flown in Washington. She went on to become the legislative body’s Democratic whip and helped pass one of the nation’s first family-leave laws. Support for families has always marked her career.
In 1991, Murray watched members of the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., question Anita Hill during televised confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The senators were widely criticized for being disrespectful and patronizing. Just as the "mom in tennis shoes" remark had helped motivate her to run for the state senate, she now thought about running for higher office. When Washington Governor Booth Gardner announced he wouldn’t seek a third term, Murray considered running for his job. Plenty of people discouraged her. "Back then I was told, 'You haven’t paid your dues. You haven’t been in politics long enough. You don’t have enough money. You don’t know how to raise money. You don’t know enough people. You don’t know the right people,'" Murray recalled (Suderman).
In 1992, Norleen Koponen, then Washington state president for the National Organization for Women, was skeptical when Murray told her she wanted to run for the U.S. Senate, but when sitting Democratic Senator Brock Adams quickly withdrew his reelection bid after women came forward to say that he had drugged, molested, assaulted, and raped them, Koponen was motivated to help Murray run. Murray's primary opponent, Don Bonker, had served eight terms as a U.S. Congressman and was now a D.C. lobbyist. During a debate in June 1992, Bonker emphasized his knowledge of issues around the globe. Murray talked about her experience as a mother and the worries of everyday people. Murray lightheartedly brought up the "mom in tennis shoes" insult from her early lobbying days. She said the Senate needed someone like her.
The Seattle Times described Bonker as serious and reserved and wrote of Murray, "she talks excitedly, and her remarks rarely sound like they’ve been massaged by handlers" (Matassa). She ended the debate by looking at Bonker’s wrist, laughing, and pointing out to him and the audience that his watch was still on Washington, D.C., time. (Later, Senator Murray would keep her own watch on Pacific time when she was in Washington, D.C.)
In the September 1992 primary, she won the nomination with 288,287 votes, besting both her Democratic opponent Bonker and the Republican who would be her opponent in the general election, Rod Chandler, who received 197,438 votes. Chandler had been a news anchor at KOMO TV in Seattle and spent 10 years as a U.S. Congressman. He had a more imposing presence than his young opponent, who stood just 5 feet tall. Near the end of the debate, Murray noted he’d voted to raise his own salary while his constituents in Washington were facing a tough economy. Chandler then startled viewers by bursting into song with a verse from a 1964 Roger Miller hit — "Dang me, dang me, they oughta take a rope and hang me, high from the highest tree, Woman, would you weep for me."
Murray replied, "That’s the attitude that brought me into this race, Rod" (Boren). The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Rebecca Boren wrote that Chandler had trounced Murry for 46 minutes of the debate, adding, "Unfortunately for Chandler the debate was 50 minutes long" (Boren). Murray went on to beat Chandler at the polls by 54 to 46 percent, although he had outspent her by more than two to one.
1992: Year of the Woman
Murray was one of four women elected to the Senate that year — enough for the election to be dubbed the "Year of the Woman." The Murray family got into their car and drove to Washington, D.C. Son Randy, 15, and daughter Sara, 12, went to local schools, and during late-night votes in the Senate, Rob and the kids would sometimes hang out in her office eating takeout pizza and watching television.
Three years later, after Randy graduated from high school, Rob and Sara moved back to Washington state, where he went to work as a computer systems director at SSA Marine. Ever since, Senator Murray, with few exceptions, has flown home for every weekend when Congress wasn’t in session. Her neighbors on Whidbey Island are used to seeing her in the Freeland grocery store and at the Oak Harbor Home Depot on weekends.
Soon after Murray arrived at the Senate, she sought out Senator Robert Byrd, who had served in Congress since 1952, when Murray was a toddler. Byrd was known for his devotion to the traditions of the Senate. She told him she wasn’t there to ask for any favors but to learn the rules of the Senate from an expert. Byrd was delighted. He immediately offered her a seat on the Appropriations Committee, which he chaired, a highly unusual appointment for a freshman. She has remained on the powerful committee ever since.
When she first arrived, Murray, 42, was the youngest woman senator ever, and the only one ever with school-aged children. "She doesn’t draw a lot of attention to herself. She’s not as outgoing as some people think a senator should be," said Koponen, after Murray was criticized for passing up cocktail parties to go home to her family after work. Throughout her career, she has stood back during leadership conferences, stepping forward only when it’s her turn to speak, and is one of the Senate’s most camera-shy members. Her colleague, Senator Maizie Hirono, said, "People are most familiar with the loud, more male style of leadership" (Bouie).
Serving on the Senate Budget Committee, Murray got a close look at how budgets were built. She said she had learned that "you decide what you want right away and hold your vote for it ... and maybe something good happens for you or your state" (Penhale).
In July 1994, President Bill Clinton had appointed his wife Hillary to design a new national healthcare plan, a controversial move that met public resistance. Murray and Hillary Clinton flew to Seattle to promote the final plan. They looked down from the Westin Hotel at a gathering crowd of about 5,000 at Westlake Park. Sounds of protest could be heard from below. Murray later said she had thought "but this is Seattle. We will treat people with respect once they start speaking" (Paynter).
After the event began, angry attendees yelled insults at Clinton including "Kill the bitch!" a shocked Murray said. Rally organizers tried to drown out the crowd by cranking up music, and using a welcoming banner as a barrier. When the park’s outdoor fountains were turned on, the crowd chanted "Whitewater, Whitewater," referring to a controversy over the Clintons' real estate dealings. An angry swarm continued to shout at the motorcade as it returned to the hotel garage, and the Secret Service arrested a man armed with two handguns.
Several months later, in midterm elections, Republicans took both the House and the Senate for the first time in 40 years, adding six new Republicans to the Washington delegation. Murray announced that she wouldn’t hesitate to promote use of the filibuster to stall Republican bills.
"People Don't Want Extremes"
In 1996 Democrats regained some of the seats they had lost two years earlier. "People don’t want extremes," Murray said. "They want members of Congress to go back and govern, and not to stop everything" (Connelly). Political cartoonist David Horsey described her as "the unpretentious, earnest Murray, trying to nurture a politics of conciliation and caring in a polarized political environment" (Horsey).
In Murray’s bid for re-election in 1998 she faced Linda Smith, a two-term Congresswoman from Clark County. Smith opposed abortion, affirmative action for minorities, and hate-crime legislation, as well as high taxes and big government. She went aggressively after Murray with the help of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters. Murray won by a margin of 58 to 32, winning big in populous King County, and also won five counties in conservative Eastern Washington.
She had run nearly a million dollars' worth of ads pointing out that Smith had voted against the Head Start program for children and school lunches. As a candidate, Murray focused heavily on domestic issues such as children, education, and healthcare, and the needs of ordinary people. Throughout her career, she approached the electorate the same way she had in 1992, when she had pointed out with pride that she was the only U.S. senator in history to have been a preschool teacher. When promoting the Clintons’ healthcare plan, she talked about her family’s struggles when her father fell ill. When discussing women’s health issues, she told the story of a friend who died young of ovarian cancer. And when flood control was up for debate, she brought up how her parents had fared during a flood at the mobile home park where they lived.
In 1996, Murray was one of 15 Democrats who voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage, acknowledging briefly that many Americans felt marriage should be between a man and a woman before she stopped talking about the issue. But on March 1, 2013, she would sign on to an amicus brief challenging section 3 of the act, and on June 26, 2013, when the Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional, she posted on her official website, "Today is a day of joy for all of the loving, committed LGBT couples across America, including the more than 2,400 couples who married in my home state of Washington this year" (Murray website).
In 1998, when President Clinton faced impeachment after an affair with a White House intern, Murray’s position was that she agreed with Clinton’s policies but not his personal conduct, and that the Senate should censure but not impeach him.
She was criticized for promoting policies with personal anecdotes. Some felt her direct, folksy manner meant she was a lightweight. Early in her career, a newspaper endorsing her against her first opponent, Linda Smith, added that her grasp of issues was "much improved," despite a "slow learning curve" (CNN). In March 1998, the left-wing magazine Progressive called her "One of the ten dimmest bulbs in Congress," and in 2011, the right-wing Washington Examiner also called her a dim bulb (Carlson). Washingtonian magazine put her in its "No Rocket Science" category of members of Congress (Howland).
But closer to home, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer described her as "Dogged, unprepossessing and often underestimated" in a 2001 editorial titled "Murray Brings Home the Bacon" (P-I, December 11, 2001). Back in 1994 she had got Seattle a $24.2 million Housing and Urban Development loan to finance downtown improvements, including the conversion of the Frederick & Nelson department store into a modern flagship store for its rival, Nordstrom. In 2001, she drew the wrath of Arizona Senator John McCain when she sponsored a $60 billion transportation law that delivered $190 million to Washington for roads, bridges, ferries, and other projects. An unapologetic Murray said, "This funding is an appropriate step in addressing the Puget Sound’s traffic woes" (Pope).
The Post-Intelligencer’s Joel Connelly warned that that anyone who underestimated Murray would no longer be part of the political landscape, and Horsey, the paper’s editorial cartoonist, cast Murray as a female Senator Warren Magnuson, who had been known over his six terms for the stunning amount of federal dollars he had steered to the state. Between 2008 and 2020, Murray directed almost a billion dollars back home to Washington. Some people called her "Patty Magnuson," but she was also working on the family issues that had first drawn her to politics — sponsoring legislation such as the Violence Against Women Act and The Family and Medical Leave Act.
In 2001, Murray was named Chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), the first woman to hold the position. The biggest item on her to-do list was to raise a war chest of $87.5 million.
Maria Cantwell defeated Washington’s senior senator, Republican Slade Gorton, in 2000. Democrats were back in control and Murray became a senior senator. She was now chair of the Transportation Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, with influence over federal dollars for highways, mass transit, airports, and more. She was instrumental in getting funding for a third runway at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and paving the way for a $500 million guarantee for Sound Transit’s regional rail system.
Elected Again, and Again
During the 2004 election, Murray faced George Nethercutt. In 1994 he had startled the nation when he defeated Congressman Tom Foley of Spokane, who served as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Foley was the first sitting speaker to be defeated since 1860. Nethercutt faced two obstacles against Murray. He had pledged to serve only three terms, but he was now in his fifth term, and also, Washington senators had very seldom been elected from the sparsely populated part of the state east of the Cascade Mountains.
Nethercutt supported the war in Iraq, and Murray opposed it. After she was found to have told a group of high school students that Osama bin Laden had curried favor in the Middle East by building roads and schools in places where government aid had been scarce, Nethercutt said Murray had been "praising Osama bin Laden for building daycare centers in Afghanistan" (Duran). When Murray resisted debating him, Nethercutt held a mock debate with a pair of tennis shoes. They finally faced off two weeks before the election. Both Democrats and Republicans predicted their candidate would win, the Republicans at one point saying Murray was only at 39 percent. In the end she beat Nethercutt 55 to 33 percent.
In 2008, Barack Obama was elected president and Murray rose to the Senate’s No. 4 leadership position as conference secretary. In 2007, she became a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
The question in 2010 wasn’t whether the Democratic Party was going to lose seats in Congress, but how many. The economy remained in critical condition and the Affordable Care Act was unpopular. The National Republican Senatorial Committee targeted Murray and recruited Dino Rossi, a former state senator and two-time gubernatorial nominee, to run against her. His ads featured a Murray look-alike in tennis shoes walking on the backs of citizens writhing in pain. The words "Patty Murray: 18 Years on Our Backs" appeared on the screen.
Rossi painted her as a big spender of federal dollars. Murray had been nicknamed "Ferry Godmother" after wrangling $7 million from the Department of Transportation for Washington’s ferry system. Polls showed her running neck and neck with Rossi. She pointed out that he had taken money from a political action committee run by Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who was working to deliver a tanker contract to Airbus rather than Boeing. Murray raised a formidable war chest — $17 million, including more than $3.5 million from political action committees and other outside groups. Contributors included Emily’s List, Microsoft, the University of Washington, and Boeing. The race was crucial to control of the Senate; the Republicans were hoping to flip 10 Senate seats.
In October, President Obama came to Seattle and filled an arena at the University of Washington. He and Murray walked on stage together to the roars of an enthusiastic crowd, and hugged each other before she spoke. Bill Clinton and Joe Biden had already visited the state on her behalf. The Republicans gained seven seats out of 10 they had hoped to get, and Murray won with 52.3 percent to Rossi’s 47.6 percent. It was the closest election of her life.
In 2016, when she ran for a fifth term, her opponent was Chris Vance, the former Washington State Republican Party Chairman. Vance pointed out that while she had been in office the deficit had ballooned to more than $19 trillion. She replied that the deficit grew in part because of Republican policies, citing wars in the Middle East that weren’t paid for and tax cuts for wealthy people. Murray also reminded voters that she first ran in 1992 to deal with issues "important to everyday people" (Camden) such as healthcare and the economy. She supported raising the minimum wage, reducing the cost of college, ensuring equal pay for equal work, and reforming campaign finance practices. Murray won again.
On February 3, 2020, Murray was chosen to deliver the closing remarks in the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump. She said, "[I] believe it is painfully clear the President of the United States has abused his power and obstructed Congress, and he should be removed from office" (Brunner). She also cited his lack of remorse, adding that she had voted to censure but not to impeach President Clinton in 1999, because after she had talked to Clinton personally, he admitted wrongdoing, while Trump continued to declare a highly suspicious phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as "perfect" (Moos).
In March 2021, President Biden spoke in the Rose Garden of the White House to celebrate after his newly enacted $1.9 trillion stimulus package was approved. He made a point of praising Murray (along with Representative Rosa de Lauro) for her decades of behind-the-scenes work and commitment to legislation to lift children out of poverty.
January 6 and Beyond
Murray was in her Senate office with her husband on January 6, 2022, when they heard loud explosions. Rob told her to get down. They both were on the floor while outside in the hall they heard rioters yelling "Kill the infidels." They also heard someone say, "We saw them. They’re in one of these rooms" and "Get me the map. I need the map" (Woodruff). It sounded to Murray as if the intruders were on walkie-talkies getting directions from someone else. Rob was on the ground with his foot on the door, but she couldn’t ask him if the door was locked because they would have been overheard. Soon the intruders were pounding on the door and trying to open it. "I was not safe," she recalled, "and it lasted for a long time" (Woodruff). She later said colleagues, Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, bore some responsibility for the riot.
As of September 2022, Murray was serving on four U.S. Senate Committees and was a member of Democratic Leadership. Her roles included Chair of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Labor, and Pensions, and she was a member of its subcommittees on Employment and Workforce Safety, and Children and Families. She also chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations, and its subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, and served on four more subcommittees: Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; Energy and Water Development; Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies; Defense, and Homeland Security. She was also a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Budget, the U.S. Senate Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, and the Senate’s Assistant Democratic Leader.
Murray faced her sixth senatorial election in November 2022, running against Republican political newcomer Tiffany Smiley, a motivational speaker and former triage nurse from Pasco. Murray prevailed, winning 57.3 percent of the vote to Smiley's 42.7 percent. On January 3, 2023, Murray was elected Senate president pro tempore, becoming the first woman to hold the job since its inception and putting her third in the line of presidential succession.