Maria Cantwell follows a great line of senators

With a history of outstanding U.S. senators, Washington state is about to embark on what should be a fine new chapter.

With time, Maria Cantwell ought to become another fine senator for Washington. Indeed, the likelihood is that the Democrat from Edmonds will become an effective, high-profile member of the Senate early on. It certainly helps Cantwell’s visibility that her election appears to have broken the Republican majority and given Democrats a 50-50 tie for the next session.

The situation undoubtedly influenced two major networks to interview Cantwell on their morning news shows Monday. As Democrats point out, moreover, the election of the former high-tech executive gives the country its first senator from the new economy. Even in a Senate that includes a freshman well enough known to have won election from New York without using her last name, Cantwell’s talents should earn her ample notice.

While Cantwell is making a promising entry into the Senate, Washington state certainly will miss the presence of longtime Sen. Slade Gorton. Although Gorton would be an excellent choice for a post in a possible Bush cabinet, the state has lost the clout he carried as a senator with 18 years seniority.

History will rank Gorton with Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson and Sen. Warren G. Magnuson as an extraordinary leader in D.C. on behalf of the state. Throughout his career in the Senate and state government, Gorton has been a leading force in many major efforts to protect the environment. He also has been a consistent, passionate advocate for individuals with problems dealing with bureaucracy. Within the Senate, Gorton has been a grand force for reasoned bipartisanship, never afraid to take a strong stand but also willing to work graciously and effectively with members of the opposition even at the tensest moments.

Gorton’s career was certainly marked by tough fights with opponents and a willingness to criticize liberals from the Puget Sound region. That divisiveness, in fact, may have contributed to his defeat by Cantwell. But he helped ensure that the less urban areas of the state weren’t forgotten.

To her credit, Cantwell campaigned to become a senator for the entire state. She has promised, in fact, to visit each of the state’s 39 counties every year. That will be a challenging but worthwhile task.

Cantwell has talked about the need for action on issues that relate directly to people’s lives, including prescription drugs and controls on health maintenance organizations. With her incisive understanding for policy issues, demonstrated in both the state Legislature and the U.S. House of Representatives, she could help create answers to such difficult questions.

Her lack of seniority, though, deprives the state of the significant influence over appropriations that Gorton wielded, especially for environmental projects. The state, and Cantwell, will have to look to Sen. Patty Murray to fill as much of the gap as possible.

Cantwell returns to politics after making a fortune with a high-tech company in just five years. As the careers of Jackson, Magnuson and Gorton have demonstrated, the length of service is a critical factor in making a great senator. Cantwell should keep that in mind as she makes what is likely to be an impressive entrance into the Senate of the United States.

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