Undefeated Champion

“Now I must get back into politics, that’s the only way to help the Democrats return to power,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Arnold Waxman, sitting in his small, plain district office on crowded Third Street near La Cienega Boulevard.Get back into politics? The man has been a player since a junior high school teacher confiscated the Adlai Stevenson button he wore to class. He was statewide president of the California Federation of Young Democrats in college and has been an elected — and never defeated — public official for 32 of his 61 years.

He is recognized by friends and opponents in the House of Representatives as a master legislator, and just about every federal law on health care and the environment over the past quarter century bears Waxman’s imprint.By “getting back” into politics, Waxman means returning to the grunt work of his craft, knocking on doors, pressing the flesh, and raising lots and lots of money.

Unbeatable in his own district, one of the wealthiest and most liberal in the country, Waxman has used his low-key fundraising prowess to benefit young colleagues, and he plans to intensify his efforts.

It is not by chance that three of the four new Jewish Democrats elected to the House in November — Adam Schiff, Jane Harman and Susan Davis — are Southern Californians who benefited from campaign funds dispersed through Waxman’s Los Angeles Political Action Committee.

As dean of the 27 Jewish House members and a lifelong supporter of Israel in and out of Congress, Waxman is discouraged by the violence in the Middle East “after everything Israel has done to advance the peace process,” he told The Journal.

He doubts that President George W. Bush will bring the same intensity to mediating between Israelis and Palestinians as did President Clinton, and he worries that Bush’s ties to the oil industry could make him “more responsive to Saudi Arabia.”

Yet his short-term pessimism is leavened by the political reality that “it always takes a new administration a couple of years before it starts looking at the Middle East.”

On the domestic front, Waxman views the next four years with “a great deal of apprehension.” He fears a weakening of Medicare and, despite Bush’s campaign promises to provide free prescription drugs for seniors, Waxman said that “if you look at his actual proposal in detail, millions of seniors will be left out.”

The congressman is equally apprehensive about the enforcement of environmental regulations, many of which became law through his initiative.

“Bush is very weak in this area,” he said. “It depends what kind of people are appointed at lower levels, where the day-by-day environmental decisions are made.”

Henry Waxman’s grandparents on both sides left Bessarabia shortly after the deadly Kishinev pogroms of 1903 and 1905. Their stories of murderous persecution, together with the ardent trade unionism of his own parents, shaped young Henry’s sympathies for the underdog early on.

After his family moved from the Jewish working-class enclave of Boyle Heights to the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles, Henry learned the value of coalition-building across ethnic lines.

“My sister Miriam and I were the only Jews and among the few Caucasians at Fremont High,” he recalled. There were no synagogues in the vicinity, so Henry attended Hebrew school and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation.

After his high school graduation, the family moved to the Beverly- Fairfax area, which has remained a pillar of his powerbase ever since.

At UCLA, Waxman majored in political science, both in the classroom and as a leader of the California Young Democrats, and later earned a law degree.

Equally important, he made friends with young men who were to become major political allies, among them Rep. Howard Berman and his brother, campaign strategist Michael Berman, State Senate leader John Burton, and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown.

After four years in private law practice, Waxman jumped into politics full time by running for the California Assembly and beating the veteran incumbent in the all-important Democratic primary by a large margin.

To win the race, he combined old-fashioned precinct walking with the brand-new technique, fathered by Michael Berman, of direct mailings targeting specific groups of voters. One mailing addressed the concerns of senior citizens, another the interests of homeowners, and so on.

The same combination of door-knocking and computer-generated targeted mailings propelled Waxman to victory in his first congressional race in 1974, a seat he has since held without interruption.

Waxman’s district, and his unassailable position in it, is the envy of most other politicians. It extends from his Beverly-Fairfax home base, where he lives, to the mansions of Hancock Park and Beverly Hills, the Hollywood Hills, Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Los Feliz and the southern edge of the San Fernando Valley.

“I am fortunate that I represent a Democratic district whose electorate wants me to be involved in national and international issues,” he said. “That way, I can focus on health and environmental concerns and those affecting the entertainment industry and Israel. I am fortunate that my views and those of my district are compatible.”

They’re so compatible that one observer noted, “Henry doesn’t have to take the pulse of his constituents to know how they feel about a given issue. All he needs is to take his own pulse.”

Waxman has never been in a tough election fight, and the only excitement after the polls close is in guessing whether he’ll win by a “low” 64 percent of the votes or a high of 74 percent.

With little other ammunition, an opponent may carp that Waxman has become so much of a Washington fixture that he spends too little time in his home district. Be that as it may, the home folks don’t seem to mind.

Nobody has ever accused Waxman of gaining success through his charisma or by cutting a dashing figure. Standing less that five-and-a-half-feet tall, bald and with a toothy grin, he would never be cast as a powerful politician by his constituents in the movie industry.

His strengths, aptly described in a new book titled “The Congressional Minyan,” are “hard work, knowing the issues and parliamentary procedures better than anyone else, a genius for fundraising, and a great deal of patience, persistence and perspicacity.”

All these qualities came together in perhaps his proudest legislative achievement, the Clean Air Act of 1990, which initiated comprehensive programs to combat smog, toxic air, car emissions and depletion of the ozone layer.

Over a 10-year period, Waxman fought and outmaneuvered all attempts to weaken the bill by the Reagan and Bush administrations, the country’s most powerful industries and influential leaders of his own party until public opinion swung to his side.

Although his committee appointments, particularly his 15-year tenure as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, have focused on domestic issues, he has been a stalwart — and knowledgeable — champion of Israel.In 1980, he authored a bill creating the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, funded by the United States to further joint scientific projects between Israelis and Arabs.

The original partners were Israel and Egypt, but now participants include Moroccans and Palestinians. “This program continues successfully despite all the Middle East turmoil, and I consider it one of my most meaningful accomplishments,” says its originator.

Waxman and his wife, the former Janet Kessler, have had a personal incentive to visit Israel since their daughter, Carol, made aliyah 10 years ago.

The Waxmans’ son, Michael-David, is in the communications business in Los Angeles.

In his personal life, Waxman may not wear his Judaism as conspicuously on his sleeve as, say, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, but “The Congressional Minyan” cites him as the most “Jewish Jew” on Capitol Hill.

He and his wife are active Conservative Jews and keep a kosher home. He accepts no political engagements during Shabbat and meets twice a month with other Jewish members for study sessions.

In Washington, he and his wife, who was a founding member of Congressional Wives for Soviet Jewry, are members of the Adas Israel congregation. In Los Angeles, they attend services at Temple Beth Am, Valley Beth Shalom and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Waxman is unfazed by the prospect that the rapidly growing Latino population in Los Angeles and California will seek political power to reflect its size, at the likely expense of Jewish office holders.

“First, you don’t need a Jewish district to elect a Jewish politician,” he says. “When I first went to Washington, I was the first Jew from Southern California ever elected to Congress. And look at the picture now.

“Secondly, I believe most of the Latino leaders will work with us. For my part, I have always believed in coalitions where the partners share the same basic values.”