Mr. Lowenthal goes to Washington

On the same day former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Defense Secretary, was being grilled in the Senate for having referred to pro-Israel advocates as the “Jewish lobby,” newly elected U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said that he hadn’t been contacted by any advocates for the Jewish state in his first weeks on the job. 

“They will probably, maybe. We just hired a scheduler, who just came on board,” Lowenthal said, sitting in his partially furnished district office in downtown Long Beach last week. “They haven’t had the chance to.”

Since Lowenthal is a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, it’s likely he’ll receive calls from all manner of groups with policy preferences that extend beyond America’s boundaries, including supporters of Israel. 

“Everything that’s going on in the world wants to happen in Washington, D.C., and so you have these phenomenal resources [and] people,” Lowenthal said, likening the experience of working in the nation’s capital to “being a kid in Toys ‘R’ Us.” 

Lowenthal is no kid, however. A member of Temple Israel in Long Beach, Lowenthal grew up in a secular Jewish family in New York, counting David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Jackie Robinson among his heroes. At 71, he’s the oldest member of the Congress’ freshman class, and he arrives with more than two decades of state and local legislative experience.

Nevertheless, Washington feels different, Lowenthal said, and not just because the issues facing Congress are bigger in scope than those he addressed as a member of the Long Beach City Council and then in Sacramento, where he spent eight years in the Assembly followed by six in the State Senate. 

“Most city council systems are very orderly, and if you go to the floor of the State Senate, State Assembly, they’re pretty orderly meetings,” said Lowenthal, who taught psychology for nearly 30 years at California State University, Long Beach, before heading to Sacramento. “You go to the floor of the Congress, it’s pure chaos. Everybody’s talking at once, nobody’s listening, and at first I thought it was kind of bizarre.” 

In the Assembly, Lowenthal was a co-founder of the Bipartisan Caucus, and he said he’s hoping to continue working across the aisle in Washington. But even in just his first few weeks, Lowenthal saw just how heated some battles can be. 

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Lowenthal had a say in who would lead its different subcommittees, which put him in the front row for the recent “intrigue” stemming from last year’s expensive, internecine and nasty electoral battle between former Rep. Howard Berman and the re-elected Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks). 

Sherman, even before he beat his senior colleague by 20 points in November’s election, had announced his intention to vie for Berman’s spot as ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. That effort met with strong opposition in December from other Democrats, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) won the post. 

In January, Sherman again ran into stiff resistance from members of his party when he made a bid to lead the Democrats on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. 

“I’m a psychologist — the sores were too raw,” Lowenthal said, describing the opposition to Sherman as coming from “everybody in the entire [Democratic] caucus.” Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) ultimately won that position; Sherman retained his role as ranking member of the Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, on which Lowenthal also holds a seat. 

“I realize what a wonderful Congressman Howard Berman was, but the people had spoken. It is what it is,” Lowenthal said. “And Brad, he has good positions, and I have no problem with Brad. I wasn’t part of that fight.”

Lowenthal also sits on the House Committee on Natural Resources, and said he’s hoping to continue working in Congress on some of the issues he dealt with at the state level, including promoting trade practices that are also environmentally friendly. 

“California is the leader of the world” when it comes to port activities, Lowenthal said, “and [other ports] all look to California to see where we were on trade, how we were going to both grow the business and reduce pollution.” 

“We’re doing it,” he continued. “Everybody’s kind of pulling in the same direction.”

Lowenthal said he’s still learning Washington’s rituals, and declined to point to any particular legislative priorities he would like to work on in his new role. 

“I didn’t go to each level of government thinking what I was going to do necessarily, but to really pay attention to the issues and people and try to move the ball forward in some way,” Lowenthal said.