Sen. Maria Cantwell, now seeking a third term, has displayed a prosecutorial zeal in going after anything she believes impedes a fair and competitive free market. Her targets have included oil-market speculation, which she says inflates gas prices, and derivatives trading and market manipulation she blames for spawning the 2008 economic meltdown.

Share story

WASHINGTON — If you are a lobbyist for grain legumes, it helps to have someone like U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on your side. Just ask Tim McGreevy.

McGreevy, chief executive of USA Dry Pea & Lentil Council, a trade group based in Moscow, Idaho, hoped to get a provision inserted into the 2012 farm bill to encourage school cafeterias to serve more pulse — or legume seed — crops, such as chickpeas. The idea was as exciting as, well, dry beans.

The proposal, however, caught a pivotal break earlier this year when Cantwell, now seeking her third term, decided to champion a bill to create a pilot program. Convinced of benefits to both farmers and processors as well as to students’ nutrition, the Edmonds Democrat proposed an amendment on the Senate floor to authorize $10 million to boost legume contents in school meals.

Though she does not sit on the Senate agriculture committee, McGreevy said Cantwell convinced other members of the merits of the program and secured its passage, amid 150 competing amendments.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh yeah, I support this program. I support you,’ ” McGreevy said. “There was a lack of understanding about pulse crops. She had a lot of educating to do.”

Cantwell — whose re-election seems virtually assured against freshman state Sen. Michael Baumgartner — has combined her resolutely unflashy style with skilled vote counting learned from her late father, an Indiana state and local Democratic politician, and her six years in the Washington Legislature. She also has largely eschewed ideological battles in a Congress where bipartisanship is more talked about than practiced.

At the same time, Cantwell has displayed a prosecutorial zeal in going after anything she believes impedes a fair and competitive free market. Her targets have included oil-market speculation, which she says inflates gas prices, and derivatives trading and market manipulation she blames for spawning the 2008 economic meltdown.

“I believe in good, old-fashioned American capitalism,” Cantwell, 53, said. “I just worked and focused every single day on things that will help our economy and add jobs.”

In the 112th Congress, however, seemingly uncontroversial matters like job creation often have hit political turbulence. In March, for instance, a Cantwell amendment to renew the Export-Import Bank for four more years and to raise its lending cap by $40 billion hit an unexpected Republican blockade. The Ex-Im Bank is an independent agency that helps finance the sale of U.S. products, most notably Boeing aircraft, to foreign customers.

But many in the House Republican majority, stirred by the conservative Heritage Foundation and the anti-tax group Club for Growth, objected to the bank’s fundamental mission. Among other things, critics viewed government loan guarantees as corporate welfare. The U.S. airline industry, led by Delta Air Lines, sued Ex-Im Bank for financing the purchase of 30 Boeing jetliners by Air India, saying the deal undercut U.S. carriers.

Cantwell had enlisted support from such Republicans as Sens. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Richard Shelby, from Alabama, and had what Senate Democrats — and the business community — thought were 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster. But Graham and Shelby, in a turnabout, helped block Cantwell’s amendment.

“It was a program that many times was voted for in bipartisan fashion,” Cantwell said. “Then all of a sudden, it was under attack.”

After two months of wrangling, the two chambers finally voted to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank and to raise its lending cap to $140 billion, as Cantwell’s initial amendment proposed.

Longshot in 2000

In 2000, Cantwell was a longshot Senate hopeful trying to unseat Republican incumbent Slade Gorton. She did beat him, but her margin of victory — a couple thousand votes — was so slim Gorton waited for 24 days and a statewide ballot recount before conceding.

Previously, Cantwell had served a single term in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1993-1995. She also had worked as a senior vice president at RealNetworks. The technology firm’s stock options provided Cantwell with $10 million of the $11.5 million she spent to eke out the win over Gorton.

Baumgartner, her opponent this year, has been running a vastly underfinanced campaign with little official GOP support.

Baumgartner has tried mightily to engage Cantwell in the race. He criticized her for allegedly lacking a plan to balance the budget, for helping to double the deficit in six years and for voting to invade Iraq and fund more troops in Afghanistan. He accused her of dodging debates. He even slammed the unmarried Cantwell for being childless.

Cantwell finally agreed to hold a televised debate with Baumgartner on Friday. Otherwise, she has largely ignored him.

Known for being intense and demanding, Cantwell in recent years has directed a singular focus on jobs and American competitiveness. She had a quote from a 2010 New York Times article posted for her staff in the Hart Senate Office Building. In it, former columnist Bob Herbert called it “beyond pathetic” that Democrats, who then controlled both Senate and the House, weren’t “spending every waking hour trying to fix the broken economic system and put suffering Americans back to work.”

Cantwell said watching RealNetworks grow from a dozen-person startup to a company with some 1,000 employees has shown what innovation can do for the American economy. She has pushed for federal spending to help train aerospace workers, research renewable jet fuels and more lending through the Small Business Administration, among others.

“I just see this incredible opportunity in front of us,” Cantwell said. “We’re in an Information Age, and there are so many products and services that can be created.”

Cantwell gravitates toward issues that may not seem like hot topics at kitchen tables. She and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have been agitating to revive the Glass-Steagall Act, the Depression-era prohibition against mixing commercial and investment banking. Cantwell also successfully pushed the Federal Trade Commission to adopt rules criminalizing price manipulation in the wholesale petroleum market.

Cantwell contends voters have an intuitive sense of when the rules are rigged, whether on Wall Street or in the oil markets.

“They get it. Whether they get the details doesn’t matter,” she said. “They don’t think gas prices are all about supply and demand. There is a lot of shenanigans that go on in the market, and they know that.”

Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon who shares some of Cantwell’s reputation for wonkiness, said she has an uncommon mix of expertise in technology and old-school politics. And when she speaks, Wyden said, her colleagues tend to listen.

“She does not go to the floor of the United States Senate and just pop off at random,” he said. “She’s always well prepared.”

Cantwell says maintaining America’s global pre-eminence will require a united Congress. Otherwise, she said, China might produce aircraft that should be built by Boeing, or speculative trading of financial instruments could once again imperil the economy.

“We have some big challenges that have to be met,” she said.

Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.