Henry Waxman is a combination of toughness and gentlemanliness, qualities that helped raise him from the fratricidal politics of West Los Angeles to the pinnacle of power in President-elect Barack Obama’s Washington.
Through it all — from battles as a leader in the California Young Democrats in the 1960s to the Washington, D.C. Capitol meeting room where last week the Los Angeles Democratic congressman unseated John Dingell (D-Mich.) to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee — he has retained an idealism and interest in intricate public policy unusual in a political world, where victory too often goes to the superficial and cynical. He is also serious about his religion. He and his wife, Janet, are practicing Jews.
Waxman’s toughness was on display when he beat Dingell, Washington’s great defender of the auto industry and opponent of mileage, safety and pollution standards. Waxman had long fought for such standards, often clashing with Dingell.
He strongly made the point to his colleagues that his policies represent the change Obama brings to Washington and some of the most important portions of the president’s agenda will have to pass through the committee.
But there was more to Waxman’s victory than strong words and promises, as John M. Broder and Carl Hulse reported last Sunday in The New York Times. They quoted Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat and Dingell supporter, as saying many new members had received direct campaign contributions from Waxman: “You bumped into a lot of freshmen who said Mr. Waxman had been very good to them.” Waxman’s supporters carried lists of prospective supporters to contact in the climactic meeting and watched the doors to talk to those leaving for a break.
Waxman honed his talent for careful planning in the ’60s, when, as a young lawyer and UCLA graduate, he began his political career in the liberal volunteer organization, California Young Democrats.
Emma Schafer, a public affairs consultant who runs the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, recalled meeting with other Young Democrats, including Waxman, at the West L.A. home of Howard Berman, who also later went on to Congress. “We plotted and planned campaigns,” Schafer said. “We were the anti-Unruh, anti-money crowd.”
By Unruh, she was referring to the late Jesse M. Unruh of Los Angeles, the longtime Speaker of the California Assembly, who, unlike the Berman-Waxman crowd, supported the Vietnam War, although he turned against it later in the decade. He was also a prodigious political fundraiser, whose efforts offended the reformist Young Democrats who opposed the war.
The fights between the Unruh followers and the anti-war group became legendary. They fought on every level, battling fiercely for even fairly obscure posts known only to political insiders.
When Waxman became president of the Young Democrats, Rick Tuttle, the former Los Angeles city controller, met up with him at an East Hollywood meeting hall. Tuttle was there for a complex four-way fight for political power, an event typical of Young Democrats’ political life.
He listened to Waxman speak, and later they chatted. “He was friendly, engaging, very down to earth,” Tuttle said. And he remembered that Waxman “spoke in complete paragraphs.”
By this time, Waxman was ready to challenge the Democratic assemblyman in the West Los Angeles area, Lester McMillan, an Unruh loyalist.
McMillan was well-liked by many Los Angeles liberals, mainly because he introduced a bill abolishing the death penalty every year. It never passed, but it made McMillan something of a hero among some Westside liberals, and Waxman’s decision to take him on represented a huge escalation of the Young Democrats’ assault on Unruh.
McMillan had the name and Unruh backing, but Waxman had a brilliant young political strategist in Howard Berman’s brother, Michael.
Most politicians at that time saw the Westside as a typically amorphous sprawl, difficult to fathom. Michael Berman saw it for what it was, a distinct collection of Jewish communities, centered on synagogues and community organizations.
Waxman reached them by traditional means, traveling from synagogue to synagogue, from one organizational coffee to another.
But Michael Berman brought a technique to the campaign that was revolutionary for the 1960s: using computers to analyze census tracts and voter records to identify voters in the district. A much more sophisticated version of this technique is now common in political campaigns, but when Berman unveiled it some 40 years ago, computerized politics brought about a radical change.
Berman sent out direct mailers to each group. Some addressed the concerns of older people. Others were targeted toward younger families. Some were about Israel, others about homeowners’ concerns.
Waxman beat McMillan, became a leader in the Assembly and moved on to Congress in 1974. His district reaches as far north as Calabasas and Agoura Hills, and includes portions of Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, as well as Beverly Hills and the Fairfax district.
In Congress, Waxman has dug into complex issues, including health care and pollution. He is the author of a major revision of the Clean Air Act of 1990, a major step in efforts to control pollution.
When the Democrats lost control of Congress, Waxman, no longer a policy-making committee chair, turned to investigating abuses by industry and the Bush administration.
Now, as chair of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman is poised to play a leading role in putting the Obama agenda into law, particularly in health care and in pushing the auto industry into manufacturing energy-efficient and minimally polluting cars.
In a phone conversation on Monday, Waxman told me that health, the environment and energy — all within the committee’s jurisdiction — will be his top priorities.
“The energy issue is one of national security,” he said. Americans must “wean ourselves from depending on sources” in nations hostile to us. And he said millions of jobs will be produced by industries created by a new energy policy, and they “will transform our economy.”
On health care, he said he favors something along the lines of what Obama has advocated, where people can retain their own health plans or move into a form of government-backed health insurance.
I asked him what it felt like to take on a tough old vet like Dingell.
“I felt the next two years offered historic opportunities, and I didn’t think John Dingell was up to it,” he said.
Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.