Image: Robin Stein

Locally, the biggest winner in last year’s election wasn’t even on the ballot. 

Democratic state senator Ed Murray, a boyish 57-year-old, was feted like a conquering hero on election night when he stopped by the impromptu street party that had broken out in Pike/Pine. Murray, who lives on the homier north end of the hip neighborhood, was returning from the Democrats’ official victory event at the downtown Westin around 11:30. So many people crowded around him, having their picture taken with him on their iPhones and hugging him, that, he says, he had “scratches all over my face” from people “rubbing me with their earrings.”

“People were kind of pushing me up to say something. And someone handed me a microphone,” Murray remembers. “And I got on top of a truck and said something like, ‘You guys made this happen.’ I’ll never experience that again in my political career.”

The Murray lovefest was the culmination of the state’s—and Murray’s—decades--long fight for gay marriage. Last February, Murray, who’s gay, sponsored marriage equality legislation that he nimbly maneuvered through the stodgy senate, picking up four Republican votes along the way. The liberal house easily passed the legislation a week later. But, as had been predicted all along, social conservatives backed  by the DC-based anti–gay marriage group National Organization for Marriage, collected signatures to force a voter referendum. Come Election Day, however, gay marriage was approved 53 to 46 percent.

Just a week after Election Day, when members of the senate Democratic caucus got together to begin organizing for the upcoming session, they elected Murray as their new caucus leader.  “It was pretty much a no-brainer,” says Lake Stevens senator Steve Hobbs, a conservative Democrat who supports Murray. “It was a unanimous vote. No other names came up.” 

Murray’s name is also officially on the list of 2013 mayoral hopefuls. And his recent succession of political victories—especially if he translates his new Democratic leadership gig into more legislative wins that resonate in liberal Seattle—give him uncontested political momentum against incumbent mayor Mike McGinn. 

Murray, arguably Election 2012’s biggest winner, is now set up to be a potentially bigger winner in 2013, when he may actually be on the ballot. 

 

Murray, a ruddy-faced guy with gray hair and piercing blue eyes, is best known as a champion for gay rights; before passing the gay marriage bill, he ushered through a landmark antidiscrimination bill in 2006 and quickly followed it up with a series of domestic partnership bills in 2007, ’08, and ’09 that gave gay and lesbian couples all the rights of married couples. 

Murray championed a strategy of incrementalism, convincing gay leaders in ’06, after the civil rights bill passed, to focus on domestic partnerships instead of gay marriage. “For a lot of people within our community, it was a very contentious process to decide to do domestic partnership,” Murray explains. “At one point, I was in a meeting in the governor’s office and I was the only person who said, ‘Don’t do marriage.’ All the other leaders were there, and I was not a popular guy at that point. I believed strongly that we had to walk our way toward this, both to make legislators comfortable and to make people in the public comfortable.”

Despite his advocacy for gay rights, Murray is more a stereotypical kitchen--table Democrat than a culture warrior; more Bruce Springsteen Democrat than Lady Gaga Democrat. He grew up on Alki and in Lacey in a working class family; his father worked in the steel yards and as a logger. “There were seven kids, and often my parents struggled,” Murray says. “Money was often an issue.”

His grandparents were first--generation Irish immigrants, and his Irish Catholic family was politicized by the Kennedy election in 1960. Murray was five when Kennedy was elected, but became forever after a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party; he felt that Kennedy’s election validated his family’s status. “The Democratic Party is about providing opportunities for families like mine,” he says. “The Democratic Party reflects my core religious belief of helping those on the margins of society, the homeless, the mentally ill. Those looking for a second chance.”

Murray came out when he graduated college in 1980, and his identity did play a role in his political evolution, but not in the way one might expect. Though he had participated in politics—student body president in high school; anti-apartheid leader in college, running a group called the Human Rights Forum at University of Portland—he didn’t think an out gay could make it in politics and he got a low--profile job as a paralegal. But when Seattle gay leader Cal Anderson ran for the state legislature in the ’80s, Murray was energized. Much as Kennedy had validated his family’s sense of who they were, Murray says, “When Cal Anderson ran, it was like, ‘Wow, someone like me can really do that.’ And he was sort of the bookend to John Kennedy breaking through  the barrier.” 

Murray ended up running Anderson’s winning campaign in 1988 and was drawn right back into politics. He got a job working for a young city council member, Martha Choe, where he was tasked with wonky policy work such as figuring out bus routes between Capitol Hill and Queen Anne, and facilitating street-calming and bike lane projects.  “If I learned retail politics from Cal, I learned public policy and how to do  budgets from Martha Choe.” When  Anderson died from AIDS in 1995, the appointment shuffle to fill Anderson’s senate seat put Murray—by then he’d served as president of the statewide gay and lesbian advocacy group, the Privacy Fund—in the statehouse. He won reelection a year later. 

First, he served as the house capital budget chair. Next, he served as house transportation chair, ushering through new auto emissions standards. More importantly, building an unprecedented business-labor-environmentalist alliance, he passed a pair of controversial, previously unimaginable gas tax increases in 2003 and 2005 (totaling 15 cents a gallon) to upgrade the state’s transportation infrastructure. Ultimately, the controversy of building stuff and repairing roads wore off. A right-wing radio attempt to repeal the gas tax increase in 2005 failed decisively at the polls. 

Murray moved to the senate in 2007 and was appointed to the powerful ways and means committee, where his talent to craft compromises blossomed. Never mind gay marriage; slammed with the slow economic recovery and Republican power plays—including a floor coup—during last spring’s budget wrangling, Murray still managed to preserve core social services including the Disability Lifeline, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the State Food Assistance Program, and family planning services. “If the price of protecting our students, seniors, and vulnerable was a month of difficult negotiations,” Murray said, “it was well worth it.”

Murray is more  a Bruce Springsteen Democrat than a Lady Gaga Democrat. 

It’s ironic Murray has emerged as Seattle’s patient statesman in Olympia. For much of his career, he was infamous for being a hothead. Outgoing Democratic senate majority leader Lisa Brown remembers several occasions when Murray would just walk out of caucus meetings. And former house majority leader Lynn Kessler remembers Murray’s temper during a meeting with then– Eastside Republican senator Jim Horn after Horn staked out his conservative position. “Ed said, ‘That’s it, I’m leaving. If you’re going there, then I’m done.’ And I thought, Come on Ed, sit down.” 

But Murray’s recent victories—on the budget, for example—defy his former rep, and have featured a more mature politician. “I watched Ed grow into his leadership role,” Kessler says, “and he really came into it when he was made chair of the ways and means committee. Did he have the patience to work with all these various people that can drive you crazy? I just watched how he realized, ‘Okay we gotta go there.’ ”

Murray’s new penchant for negotiating and bringing opponents along has become his strongest suit. “It’s not a sin to cross the aisle and negotiate and come to some compromise so that you get a better deal. And Ed matured into that place,” Kessler says, juxtaposing Murray with a lot of other progressives who “hard-edged their positions…and Ed didn’t.”

Kessler points to Murray’s gay marriage victory. “In order to get that passed he had to bring on some more moderates and some Republicans, and,  I will tell you, even though opponents were just always saying wretched things on the floor, he just responded with the most calm. He knew that when you really want to get something that people don’t want to do, you have to do it in a way that brings them along slowly.”

 

Murray will certainly need patience in his new job as caucus leader of a shaky majority. Indeed, with a likely 26-23 majority, the posse of conservative Democrats in the senate known as the Roadkill Caucus who side with the GOP on fiscal issues, Murray may face big ob- stacles. “Depending on 25 votes to pass anything will be very difficult,” he says.

The other factions are already staking their positions. “I did tell him, ‘I’m going to support you as leader, and I’m not looking forward to the times that we’re going to disagree and we’re going to fight,’” says Hobbs, a leader in Roadkill, which is likely to push for more cuts to social spending and workers’ comp. “I’m pretty sure there’s going to be some tension.” 

“I work well with them,” Murray says about his conservative foes in his own party, “but there’s been some policy disagreements. I could be the shortest-lived majority leader in state history,” he jokes.

In addition to reintroducing the anti–death penalty bill he regularly introduces and reintroducing a local DREAM Act bill that would allow children of undocumented immigrants access to financial aid for higher ed, for example—Murray is now squarely focused on education. Asked what, besides funding K–12 education, was on the legislative agenda this year, he simply added higher education to the list. And Murray cleverly connects his education advocacy to the Seattle agenda, citing the high number of kids who aren’t graduating from high school in his district. Asked about the mayor’s race, Murray also turns to education. At his December 5 mayoral announcement, he listed local schools (which aren’t under the city’s official purview) among his top-three priorities (the other two were public safety and infrastructure). “I see real opportunities for this city to partner with its school district,” he said.

Ultimately, though, his mayoral pitch rests on his legislative record. “I just think this is a great city with great opportunities to really do great things. I think my legislative career shows I specialize in bringing people together to get wins, and I think the city needs that. That excites me.”

 

Published: January 2013