Ascent of a Woman

By:  Timothy Egan
Source: The New York Times

SEATTLE — Crawling along a ledge leading to the 13,775-foot summit of Grand Teton two months ago, Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, paused for an instant at the crux of the climb. The gap between her and the next solid footing was nearly half a vertical mile of thin Rocky Mountain air.

“The guide said there was no room for mistakes,” said Cantwell. “So I just never looked down.”

Having mastered a technical and demanding route up the central spire of the Teton range, Cantwell is back at sea level taking on a more elusive target — Wall Street. She has been after the lords of big finance for almost a decade, and is furious now that reforms intended to rein in the kind of car-bomb speculation that brought down the global economy have been seriously diluted. Wall Street has not changed its ways.

“People are really frustrated,” she said. “Where are the regulators? Why aren’t the banks lending? Where’s the money for small business? Why do we only bail out the people with power?”

If populism, directed at the manipulators of paper wealth and the politicians in their pockets, is a path to electoral victory next fall then the Democrats could do no better than to look at Cantwell on this coast, and Elizabeth Warren on the other. Two women, long-belittled by the suits, have been laser-focused on corporate excess since well before protesters decided to occupy Wall Street. And in the process, they’ve angered many of their own party members, whose hands are soiled by “the largest lobbying force ever assembled on the face of the earth,” as Warren characterized it.

How large? At least 2,500 lobbyists from the financial industry swarmed over Washington from 2009 to early last year, spending $1.3 billion to fight reform — more than $2 million in persuading power for every member of Congress.

A case can easily be made that the financial service sector, once a bit player in the capital, now owns the town and most of its elected inhabitants.

In “Confidence Men,” Ron Suskind’s book on the Obama administration’s reaction to the financial collapse, Cantwell and Warren come across as heroic. They understood the inside game while many others were clueless, perhaps by intent.

Warren, the janitor’s daughter from Oklahoma now running for Scott Brown’s Senate seat in Massachusetts, and “the irrepressible Maria Cantwell,” as Suskind called her, both bucked the consensual corporate deal-making before and after the collapse. They had “been right, and right early, about the way America’s financial system was drifting toward crisis,” Suskind wrote. Still, Cantwell, Warren and a few other women “had been shooed away and shouted down by the men, both those manning Wall Street and those atop Washington’s regulatory or economic policy posts, who quietly asserted that high finance might be the final mountaintop stronghold of ‘man’s work.’”

Cantwell voted against the bank bailouts — “turning the keys of the Treasury over to Wall Street,” she called it. She held up the financial reform package passed by leading Democrats last year until she could get stronger language limiting high risk and arcane securities bets. But now that the rules are being formulated for the so-called Dodd-Frank law, she is angry at how Wall Street prevailed. There are still not enough cops on the beat, she says.

“We don’t have a rule to rein them in,” she said, of what was intended as the main tool in the new law. “We have Swiss cheese.” And if she needed any more proof that Wall Street was once again up to gaming the global economy, she got it with the recent collapse of MF Global, the brokerage firm once run by Jon S. Corzine.

Three years after the financial meltdown, Wall Street is still fighting regulators’ demands — and getting its way. The Republicans, embracing big finance, have blamed the 2008 collapse on government and deadbeat homeowners, ignoring the obvious misdeeds up the predatory chain, because it pays to ignore them.

Unlike Warren, Senator Cantwell is not given to class-war speeches. Through two terms, she has been almost an invisible senator. In person, she underwhelms, a charm deficiency that has given rise to a nickname of “Senator Cant-smile.”

But behind the scenes, Cantwell has been relentless, her work shaped by two epic financial battles in her home state. She had no sooner upset the incumbent, Senator Slade Gorton, in 2000 — winning by barely 2,000 votes — than she found herself enmeshed in a fight with the criminal energy firm Enron. The company had rigged the West Coast power market, and were caught on audio tape saying how they stole from “Grandma Millie.”

The other great financial trauma was the collapse of Washington Mutual, the Seattle-based bank that died after a deep dive into the sub-prime market. It was a story of a homegrown bank lured into the big time by questionable lending at a factory pace.

At 53, Cantwell shares a house with her mother in a Seattle suburb. She grew up in an Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Indianapolis, the daughter of a construction worker and local politician. On her father’s deathbed, she recalled, the priest said, “Paul, you’ve been a good Democrat.”

Cantwell is not anti-capitalism. She made millions working in the tech sector in Seattle, and used much of the money to finance her race for the Senate. “I’m a free market person,” she said. “I just don’t believe in casino capitalism.”

She faces no significant opposition in her run for a third term next year. Having climbed one of the signature mountains in the American West, Cantwell finds the uphill struggle against Wall Street to be slow going. On Grand Teton, at least, the dangers were transparent.