One of the more pleasant burdens Maria Cantwell must bear is being mistaken for the actress MacKenzie Phillips. Last August, for instance, just before her fiercely contested race to win a first term as United States senator from Washington, Cantwell attended the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. "Anjelica Huston was in the box in front of us," she recalls. "She turned around and said, 'MacKenzie, how are you?' " Cantwell didn't correct her. "I was just thrilled that Anjelica Huston had spoken to me."

The 42-year-old Democrat may not have a household face, but she is something of a symbolic figure, representing both the nation's current political divide and its tech-fueled economic volatility. Her thread-thin margin over three-term Republican incumbent and frozen-fish heir Slade Gorton mirrored the presidential postelection nail-biter. Only after a three-week recount was Cantwell declared the winner by 2,229 votes out of 2.5 million cast, a triumph ensuring that for the first time in more than a century the Senate is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

For Cantwell, however, victory has been tempered by the sucking sound of her dot-com fortune going down the drain. Beginning in the mid-1990s, she amassed wealth estimated to be as much as $40 million, mainly in stock from the booming Seattle Internet company RealNetworks, which allows users to send and receive audio and video off the "Web. Cantwell, who made campaign finance reform a primary issue and refused to take special-interest money, bankrolled her $11.5 million Senate run almost entirely with her own funds, prompting critics to gripe that she "bought" her seat. But like so many who once enjoyed the crest of the bull market, she saw her personal worth plummet with the tech-stock swoon. In one year RealNetworks shares plunged from about $93 to as low as $5. She now owes $1.2 million in campaign debt.

"Basically she charged her Senate seat, and now she can't pay the bill," Chris Vance, Republican party chief of Washington State, told the Seattle Times. Perhaps, but Cantwell is getting high-profile help. On April 25 she and 150 Democratic elite noshed on crab cakes at a $l,000-a-pop fund-raiser held in the $2.8 million Georgetown home of fellow Senate rookie Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"It's definitely no fun," Cantwell says of media attention to her financial squeeze. "But we'll get through it." Indeed, she never seemed terribly impressed by her paper fortune. Cantwell, who is single, buys her suits off the rack and shares a simply decorated ranch house in Edmonds, Wash., off Puget Sound, with her mother, Rose, 69. "I didn't see myself buying this big house somewhere," she says. "That wasn't the way I was brought up."

Cantwell's roots are solidly working-class. She grew up in Indianapolis, the second child of five born to construction worker Paul Cantwell, who died in 1997, and Rose, who later worked for a local tax assessor. "She was definitely the dominant personality among the children," says Rose, who was divorced from her husband in the early '70s. Active in local Democratic politics, Cantwell's father used to pull his kids out of school on Election Day so they could knock on doors to drum up votes. "Maria was the child he really connected with," says her homemaker sister Carey Clay, 41. "She was Daddy's girl."

Young Maria first set her sights not on politics but space. "I thought it would be cool to be the first woman astronaut," she says, although that might have been part fantasy escape from Catholic school. "I thought, 'Ohmigosh, God wants me to be a nun.' An astronaut sounded much more fun." An inaptitude for science kept her down to earth, however, and Cantwell went on to study public administration at Miami University in Ohio. She was the first and only member of her family to earn a college degree—an achievement paid for by loans, grants and temp work.

At Miami U. she hung with a trio of women she still sees once a year. One, Cincinnati TV reporter Laure Quinlivan, 41, recalls that as head of the college Democrats, Maria "got us to dress up as peanuts in tap shoes, stand in front of the residential center and sing a campaign song for Jimmy Carter."

After college Cantwell served as a deputy field director for ex-Cincinnati mayor Jerry Springer's failed Ohio gubernatorial bid. (She recalls the pretrash-TV pol as "charismatic") And in 1984 she ran the Pacific Northwest arm of the late California Sen. Alan Cranston's presidential campaign. She subsequently settled in Seattle, where, by 1986, friends urged her to run for the state legislature. Her gut reaction? "No way," recalls Cantwell. "I always thought I'd get married and have kids and do politics later."

But run—and win—she did, serving for six years. "Maria is driven and intense, but she was always one of the guys," says Joe King, 55, then speaker of Washington's House of Representatives.

In 1992 Cantwell won a seat in Congress, representing Washington's high-tech corridor. She quickly made a mark by opposing a Clinton plan for a special chip in home computers that would allow the government to decipher scrambled messages but that critics said could allow the feds to eavesdrop on users. Eventually the administration backed off, and she was hailed for standing up to a President of her own party.

The glow was short-lived. In 1994 she was voted out of office in the Newt Gingrich-led Republican revolution. Turning away from politics, she got hooked on cyberspace. "I went crazy," she says. "For three weeks I did nothing but get up, install software and surf the Web." In 1995 Cantwell went to work for ex-Microsoft executive Rob Glaser, who had started what is now RealNetworks. "It was like being pioneers of the first days of radio," she says.

But her heart remained in politics, and last year she made the run for U.S. Senate. Cantwell now sits on the Judiciary and Energy and Natural Resources committees. Aside from campaign finance reform, she advocates holding down prescription drug prices, preserving wilderness and protecting Internet privacy. She often works a 16-hour day, stoked with coffee and Diet Coke, then retreats to an apartment blocks from her office.

Sadly, the new job doesn't leave time for much else. Over the years Cantwell has seen several serious relationships come and go. "Her sister Kellie says Maria's love life is like going fishing," notes Rose. "She gets lots of bites, but she never reels them in." Cantwell grows quiet when asked if she thinks she will fulfill her dream of having a family. "I hope so," she says, "I hope so."

On that other major life issue—money—Cantwell's roller-coaster ride hasn't dimmed her enthusiasm for cyberspace. In fact, one of her pet causes is bringing the Web to rural areas. Says the devotee of the Seattle Mariners: "We're only in the third or fourth inning of this ball game as it relates to technology, and this [slump] might just be a rain delay. I'm pretty bullish."

Richard Jerome
Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Mary Boone in Seattle

  • Contributors:
  • Macon Morehouse,
  • Mary Boone.