U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell doesn't want to make the same mistake in 2006 that Governor Christine Gregoire made in 2004. And so, in 2005, with a year to go before her reelection bid heats up, Cantwell slipped into Ballard last Thursday night and held a closed-door session at the community center on 28th Avenue Northwest. Cantwell met with about 25 Seattle Democratic Party regulars—including the chairs and co-chairs of all five of Seattle's Democratic legislative districts—to mend some fences.

Cantwell's recent yea vote on CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement), her reputation for being out of touch with Seattle's liberal constituents, and most of all, her yea vote on the Iraq war in 2002, could spell trouble for Cantwell in a race where she's going to need enthusiastic support from the lefty Democratic base.

Take notice: In King County, Gregoire netted 75,000 fewer votes than John Kerry. Guess what? Kerry trounced Bush statewide, while Gregoire barely squeaked by. Cantwell, you may remember, only won the state by 2,229 votes in 2000. Lesson: Things are tight. Cantwell needs a maximum showing in liberal Seattle if she's going to win again. For a maximum showing, liberal Seattle needs to be excited about the woman at the top of the ticket.

While it sounds like most of the folks at the Ballard session were impressed—Cantwell, for example, denounced the recent Senate filibuster compromise and said she will not confirm Bush U.S. Supreme Court nominee John Roberts if he doesn't agree that the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy (read abortion)—they didn't exactly seem excited.

"It was good, but it should have happened two years ago," Richard Kelley, chair of the 43rd District Democrats (Capitol Hill, Wallingford, the University District), said about the candid confab, where Cantwell, sitting at the head of a horseshoe-shaped table, fielded unedited hardball questions about her record.

Kelley, along with two others at the meeting demanded to know Cantwell's rationale for supporting CAFTA. (Cantwell cited some pro-labor provisions in the treaty, but Kelley wasn't persuaded that she really got it.)

"She seems to be struggling to come to terms with local Democrats' position on fair trade versus free trade," Kelley says, noting that the Democratic delegation from the Puget Sound soundly rejected the treaty.

Iraq was also a hot topic in Ballard. "Her Iraq war vote was troubling," says Janis Traven, co-chair of the 36th District Democrats (Magnolia, Ballard). "She may still believe in her head that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. I don't know."

Another antiwar Democrat on hand, David Edelman, handed Cantwell a list of basic medical supplies that physicians in Basra are sorely missing. He wanted her to do something about it.

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Tough crowd, but one Cantwell needs. Cantwell let the meeting run an extra 45 minutes and personally went around the room afterward taking down everyone's contact info. Hopefully she'll put the numbers on speed dial. "It was a good start, but it should be part of an ongoing dialogue," Kelley concluded.

josh@thestranger.com