What I learned from Henry Waxman

The news that Congressman Henry Waxman would not seek re-election to a 21st term has sent shockwaves through Los Angeles.
February 5, 2014

The news that Congressman Henry Waxman would not seek re-election to a 21st term has sent shockwaves through Los Angeles. From the environmental and health activists for whom Waxman was a hero, to the pro-Israel community where he was one of the most important allies in Congress, many are mourning the loss of a great advocate for California communities in Congress, and wishing him well as he enters the next phase of a career that has been of remarkable consequence to all Americans. For me, it has been an opportunity to reflect on my personal experiences working alongside Congressman Waxman, first as a Capitol Hill staffer, and more recently as an Assemblyman and member of the Los Angeles City Council.

Elected to the California State Assembly in 1968, and then to Congress in 1974, Henry Waxman is one of the finest legislators, not only of his generation, but to have ever served in the United States House of Representatives. His retirement is a loss, not merely to our City, our State and our Country—but to the very body to which he dedicated 40 years of his life.

Few, if any legislators, have had the kind of meaningful, significant impact on the diverse range of issues that Congressman Waxman has had.

When I came to Washington in the late 1980’s Waxman was the powerful chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, and already a legend in the hallowed halls of Congress. First as a senior staffer for Congressman Howard Berman, and more recently as a member of the California State Assembly and the Los Angeles City Council, I witnessed Waxman’s style up-close, as he championed causes ranging from health and the environment, women's and gay rights, to strengthening the ties between the United States and Israel. I was working on the Hill when he famously forced the chief executives of seven major tobacco companies to swear under oath that nicotine was not addictive. He barely broke a sweat.

But Waxman was equal parts top flight legislator as savvy political operator. Along with his friend and colleague Howard Berman, he would build an infrastructure that elected progressive democrats across Los Angeles and would turn California, then a stronghold of Republican politics, into the blue bellwether of the nation. Leaders like the late Congressman Julian Dixon, Governor Gray Davis and newly named DWP Commissioner Mel Levine have all been beneficiaries of the so-called “Berman-Waxman Machine.” More recently, I was honored to have Congressman Waxman’s support in my bids for Assembly and the Los Angeles City Council, and owe my victories in communities Congressman Waxman had ably represented in no small part to his largess.

I was also the beneficiary of their mentorship. On Capitol Hill, it can be difficult to navigate the personalities, egos and media celebrities. But Rep. Waxman, like Berman, is loved by his friends and feared though respected by his foes. He’s tough, but fair and inspires loyalty from his staff, who have gone on to remarkable accomplishments in their own right.

From both Waxman and Berman I have learned how to build coalitions around tough issues, to value of patience and perseverance in the service of accomplishing large goals. And I have sought to emulate their savvy, energy and drive in my own career, continuing their efforts to make lives better folks in Los Angeles and throughout the state.

With the departure of Congressmen Berman and Waxman, the House will have lost some 70 years of institutional memory at the end of this Congress. They have left behind a truly remarkable legacy of significant legislation; from the Affordable Care Act to the DREAM Act, from landmark clean air standards to measures that have prevented Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons capabilities, to thousands of less notable, though no less important victories on behalf of veterans, seniors, single parents and others.

As a Californian, I am grateful for Waxman’s tremendous leadership, as a friend and mentor, for his guidance over the years. Knowing Henry, the next chapter will be just as productive as the last, and I’m looking forward to what he has in store. I wish him and Janet all the best.

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