First of two parts. Next: Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan.
Morning: A walk to work
WASHINGTON — Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s walk to work is the best part of her day, she said. It’s her time to appreciate the filigree in the century-old Capitol Hill homes, notice the ever-changing flower beds, and breathe in the relative calm for eight-tenths of a mile.
She carried her homework in a worn and stained drawstring bag slung over her shoulders on a Tuesday morning in June. Often, she reads briefing memos and news clips as she strides. Security guards sometimes laugh.
“‘Ma’am, you got to stop reading,’” she said they tell her. “I got this,” she replies.
Murkowski, Alaska’s senior U.S. senator, walked briskly as cars inched along the clogged roadways. She has found herself at the eye of a few raging, nationwide political storms in recent years. But she hasn’t felt the need to give up her treasured walks.
“Security-wise, I’ve never felt worried. I know that others have felt worried for me, and that bothers me,” she said.
“Sen. (Susan) Collins (R-Maine) was the recipient of some really terrible stuff during Kavanaugh,” referring to the contentious 2018 confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court justice nominee Murkowski ultimately voted against. “I mean, really awful stuff. And the Capitol Police were assigned to her, just to be with her in the Capitol building, to take her home. I have never had to experience that.”
Murkowski, wearing a sleeveless dress and comfortable shoes, wants everyone to keep their cool. It’s time to rethink the standards of appropriate congressional attire, she explained, as temperatures climbed through the 80s in heavy air.
In the heat of a D.C. summer, men remain buttoned tight under jackets and neckties. Buildings here are air-conditioned heavily to allow them to tolerate it, she said. Meanwhile women, dressed more reasonably for the climate, sometimes counter with heaters at their desks.
“You are doubling down on your energy costs just to accommodate a uniform, which is absurd,” she said.
“I haven’t gotten very far with it.”
As she crossed Constitution Avenue toward the Hart Senate Office building, frustrated people in jammed traffic honked at one another.
“See my point?” Murkowski said. “I can just wave.”
The workday: Committees and constituents
Her walking that day had only begun.
Murkowski, 62, whose office is on the fifth floor, avoids elevators and often eschews the Senate’s small subway that connects the Hart and Dirksen buildings to the Capitol, even as her schedule yanks her back and forth between them all day long.
Karina Borger, Murkowski’s communications director, said sometimes she hears huffing and puffing on recordings of on-the-fly interviews as reporters try to keep up. Murkowski said her brisk pace can be a good way to shed them.
“I get my 10,000 in,” she said, referring to her number of steps in a day.
Murkowski can be hard to pin down. She’s a centrist Republican who can, and often does, draw praise and ire from both the right and left, never more than during Donald Trump’s presidency. Her powerful swing vote drew a lot of nationwide attention in the closely-split Senate of 2017-18. Voters on both sides alternatingly applaud her positions on controversial issues when they square with their own, and fume when they do not.
Still, her appeal in Alaska has been broad enough to keep her in this job since she was appointed in 2002.
The day began in her large fifth-floor office with vaulted ceilings, the room once occupied by Ted Stevens, her mentor and Alaska’s senator for 40 years. Murkowski stopped in there for only a moment before turning toward the Energy and Natural Resources Committee room, the committee she chairs. Two high school interns and a communications staffer followed in her draft.
Senators do the bulk of their Washington-based work on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Murkowski’s days are packed tight with committee hearings, floor votes, working lunches, constituent meetings and public appearances. In her office, she often engages one set of visitors in a conference room as another group stages in a second room across the hall.
Kristen Daimler-Nothdurft’s job is to prompt her into motion. Tip for visitors: If you catch a fleeting glimpse of Daimler-Nothdurft handing Murkowski a sticky note while you’re meeting with the senator, make efficient use of your words. Your time is nearly up.
“Any meeting request of the senator’s time in D.C. goes through me. Every speaking invite goes through me. Every invitation for night, or morning, or lunch events goes through me,” Daimler-Nothdurft said.
“I take pictures, too,” she said.
Murkowski’s staff prepares briefings ahead of meetings, but Borger said she’s impressed by Murkowski’s knack for remembering people.
“I might recognize their face and I might recognize where we met them, but she recognizes all of that and their name, and the previous time that she met them,” Borger said. “She’s traveling around the state meeting with constituents left and right. Her capacity to remember all those interactions blows me away.”
Days can be wearying, Murkowski said. Sometimes staff members line up outside her office door, each needing an answer that a senior staffer can’t give. Oftentimes, in addition to meetings, she must sign off on a dozen press releases and statements.
Making better use of time motivated her most recent grassroots movement in the Senate, launched along gender lines earlier in June, to keep her colleagues on task while voting. As Murkowski describes it, senators often appear in the chamber for the first of several votes, then disappear to their offices, or to make phone calls, or to take meetings in adjacent rooms. Everyone is guilty, she said.
“We got tired of these 10-minute votes that end up being 40 minutes,” Murkowski said.
A five-vote session can disrupt a whole day. Murkowski suggested women in the Senate congregate near the center aisle and stay seated until the voting is finished to draw attention to the issue.
“(Senators) blast in, run up (to signal a vote), and then run out. They would see this whole gaggle of women, like a quarter of the Senate sitting together. That would worry them,” she said.
According to her plan, a senator who paused to inquire would be in for an earful.
“Just keep your bottom in the chair and let’s be done with this,” she said she would say.
That day would be her second chance to enact her strategy as senators convened for cloture votes on the nominations of four federal judges and a confirmation vote on the nominee to lead the Millennium Challenge Corp.
“It used to be that so many of them would just go by voice or unanimous consent. We didn’t even need to have them called up on the floor,” Murkowski said. “And it just kind of speaks to the political dynamic that is at play right now, which is very disappointing.”
Late afternoon: The view from the center
Murkowski called it a light day. When several afternoon constituent meetings had concluded at her office suite, she walked back to the Capitol to meet with another senator, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema, and two representatives, Republican Susan Brooks of Indiana and Democrat Stephanie Murphy of Florida.
Sinema suggested the meetup, according to Murkowski. The two had been talking about building relationships, both across the aisle and extending to the other wing of the legislative branch. Murkowski offered her hideaway for the get-together. Each senator has a hideaway, a semi-secret second office tucked in a nook of cavernous Capitol.
“I’m trying to remove some of those partisan walls through relationships,” Murkowski said as she walked the unadorned basement halls with Sinema.
“And women are less partisan anyway,” said Sinema, a former U.S. representative who was elected to the Senate in November.
“I’m new in the Senate, but when I was in the House, which I was for six years, I spent just as much time eating and drinking and getting to know my Republican colleagues than I did Democratic colleagues,” Sinema said. “Because people are people. They’re not their party.”
“I have no idea where we are,” Sinema added.
“It’s a rabbit warren, but it’s our rabbit warren,” Murkowski said before she opened a nondescript door to a well-appointed room flooded with sunshine. Its splendid view of the National Mall impressed the others.
Afterward, Murkowski said the women mostly got to know one another. Such interactions are one way to counter the disconnect between divisive politics and the wishes of the people they represent, she said.
“Your constituents love to hear that you’re being bipartisan. Your party hates it,” Murkowski said.
“As one who feels pretty strongly that it’s important to figure out how you build things rather than how you blow things up around here, there’s a frustration with that confined party influence,” she said. “It not only doesn’t encourage the reach-out, it discourages it. It slaps you down.”
When news organizations order senators by ideology, Murkowski can usually be found near the middle. The word “moderate” often follows her name in news coverage, but she’s not running from the label, she said.
“I happily embrace that, because what that signals to me is that people view that I am not so far to the right and I’m not so far to left that I can’t listen to both sides and see if there aren’t some solutions,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has mentioned that she and Collins seem to have become the go-to barometer when reporters want to know if an issue will be controversial.
“I am OK being one of those who people want to say, ‘You know, maybe we should check with Lisa on this to see where she’s coming from,’” Murkowski said, seated on her salmon-colored office sofa. “Because my vote should never be taken for granted.”
Murkowski recalled a moment when she served in Alaska House of Representatives in Juneau. Another lawmaker remarked that she seemed unconcerned with political consequences.
“I said it’s not like being a member of the Alaska state House has been the culmination of all my dreams. I said I’ve got a husband. I’ve got two boys. I’ve got a nice house. I’ve got a garden with good raspberries,” Murkowski recalled saying. “I am happy where I am to be contributing, but it does not define who I am.”
The people of Government Hill would let her know if they’ve had enough, she said.
“And if the people of Alaska decide that they’ve had enough of my kind of leadership, they’ll tell me. Of course, at least a few Republicans did in 2010,” she said, referring to her loss in the Republican primary for her U.S. Senate seat. She ultimately won re-election after a write-in campaign that included support from many Democratic voters.
“This is public service, and that’s what it’s about. It’s not about me so much. If I can continue to be of help, then I will continue to serve as asked,” Murkowski said.
“But if the winds change, Mary Poppins leaves.”
Evening: Bringing work home
Her comparison has limitations. Mary Poppins is often depicted carrying an umbrella, but Murkowski did without on her walk home, even as a steady rain fell on Capitol Hill. Her chief of staff, Michael Pawlowski, joined her. He joked that he’d be in trouble with his mother if photographed walking with an umbrella while the senator had none, but Anchorage Daily News confirms she refused it.
She was drenched when she walked in the door of her row house at 7:40 p.m. Her phone summarized her day: 11,359 steps and 31 flights of stairs, totaling 5.1 miles.
Murkowski’s husband, Verne Martell, had started to prepare dinner, but they waited for their son Nic to return before eating. Nic, 28, a recent law school grad, had been staying with them while he studied for the bar exam.
Murkowski sat in her living room and looked through her homework, a stack of color-coded folders prepared by her staff. The orange ones require immediate action, she said, but the light orange folders are a lower priority. In her blue folder she keeps her handwritten notes, checklists and reminders to herself: Notes she wants to send. Conversations she wants to have. Places she wants to visit.
“Tonight’s homework is not bad,” she said.
Her living room has two chairs she uses for homework, one in the morning and one in the evening. Her morning chair had another stack of work-related reading material stacked next to it. The pile included a copy of the Mueller Report.
Downtime is not a feature of her job, she said. Her workweek typically includes a 12-hour trip from Alaska to Washington, D.C., and a 12-hour trip back home again.
"I am almost 2 million miles on my Alaska Airlines account,” she said. “It gets me a free fruit and cheese.”
That travel time doesn’t include her trips around Alaska and it doesn’t include her duties hosting VIPs. Several such visitors — fellow senators, cabinet members, federal agency heads — were on her calendar before Congress’ August recess, she said. Murkowski, who said she keeps packed luggage ready to go in her bedroom, said she has learned to be at peace on the go.
“I forget what it’s like to be young and anxious and in a hurry,” Murkowski said. “Because I’ve learned it doesn’t get any better if you get frustrated with it. You just got to roll with it.”
But sometimes there are restless nights as work weighs heavy on her mind, she said. The Kavanaugh confirmation was one such time.
“You watch all the stuff that’s going on — the hearings, the politics, the posturing — and in the back of your head you’re thinking these are real human beings whose lives are being impacted. Their families are being impacted,” Murkowski said. “And just really the very honest desire to make sure that I was doing right by people that they are. And that was kind of overshadowed with the whole politics of it. Because whether you were a Kavanaugh supporter or opponent, the whole process that went forward was awful for all of the parties involved. It was awful.”
Murkowski also described her visit to the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. U.S. immigration laws need attention, she said, but she also thought about an unaccompanied 7-year-old girl she encountered who said she had traveled there from Ecuador.
“You just think about that child, you think about the parents that would send her, and it’s hard to separate the emotion,” Murkowski said. “We are all human beings at the end of the day. And so you wear that a little bit.”
Difficult work on heavy topics will continue, she said. Murkowski said Alaska, one of the most beautiful places in the world, has a sad and ugly underside that hasn’t improved significantly in her 16 years in the Senate: its rates of domestic violence and sexual assault.
“I just find it so disturbing that we have not been able to address it as we have to,” she said. “I know we can do it, but it has just been the most discouraging part of the work that I’ve been involved in.”
As Murkowski’s son returned home that June evening, his dog bounded into the living room. Murkowski sat in her evening reading chair with her reading stacked at her side. She gave Annie, a yellow Lab, a scratch behind the ears.
“I think when you start to feel things in your heart, your job is much, much harder ... Sometimes the politics, it’s like that’s not what this is all about. This is about real people, and are real people hurting, and how can we help them,” she said. “And those are the things that keep me awake.”