Schiff ponders the lure of the senate seat

Rep. Adam Schiff is facing hard choices these days.
March 25, 2015

Rep. Adam Schiff is facing hard choices these days. As an influential Jewish congressman, he must decide what to do about Iran, Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. At the same time, he is making a career-wrenching decision on running for the U.S. Senate in 2016.

But Schiff seemed relaxed as he walked into Tierra Mia, a coffeehouse in Echo Park, for our interview. We sat down at a window seat overlooking North Alvarado Street, in the heart of a diverse and lively urban portion of the 28th Congressional District, which stretches from Echo Park to the Angeles National Forest and from West Hollywood through Pasadena.

I sought him out because the issues and choices he is facing tell much about the current state of American politics.

Among the issues, there is the Middle East. As a ranking member — top Democrat — on the House Intelligence Committee, he must cast votes and make statements about the negotiations with Iran over that nation’s nuclear capability. As a Jewish lawmaker, he is subject to additional pressure from a community that is increasingly divided over Netanyahu and his hard-line policies toward the Iranian negotiations and the Palestinians.

On the career level, Schiff must consider the dismal state of Congress and how he and others like him can make a difference in the institution. And if he risks a run for the Senate and loses, he’ll also be out of the House, which means job hunting for this father of two school-age children.

“I love my work on the intelligence committee at this critical time for the country,” Schiff said when I asked him if he would abandon that job and run for the Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of longtime Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. But, he said, he had to think of “the great opportunity to contribute” in the Senate, where he might have more opportunity to wield power.

Schiff, 54, has served in the House for 16 years, the last four as a minority member of a House firmly in Republican hands. The Republicans also seized control of the Senate in the 2014 election. But Democratic chances of taking it back in the future are better than in the House, where redistricting in Republican states has made it difficult to beat GOP candidates. Thus, if Schiff were elected to the Senate, he would be in a better position to reach a powerful chairmanship than if he stays in the House.

“It’s a big state, a big hill to climb,” Schiff said of a Senate race. “There’s a certain amount of risk involved.”

The risk isn’t in the 2016 November general election, where a Democrat will be favored to win in this heavily Democratic state. The potential problem comes in the primary, a so-called “jungle primary,” in which voters can cast ballots for any candidate, regardless of party. The top two finishers compete in a November runoff. Schiff would face other Democrats in the primary and could fall short of being one of the top two. 

The system, probably so named because it’s as hard to navigate as a jungle, replaced the old rules under which voters had to choose candidates within their party. The 2012 and 2014 elections were run under the new rules. Because each senator serves for six years, this will be the first jungle primary Senate race.

“The jungle primary is a whole new world,” Schiff said. “The dynamics will be much different.”

As it stands today, only one Republican, Assemblyman Rocky Chavez of Oceanside, has entered the race. In addition to Schiff, two other Democratic members of Congress are interested: Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles and Loretta Sanchez of Garden Grove.

Jumping into the race ahead of all of them and already campaigning intensely is Kamala Harris, now in her second term as California’s attorney general, a post that keeps her in the news. She’s biracial, African-American and South-Asian. Her late mother, a breast cancer researcher, was from India, and her father, who taught economics at Stanford, is from Jamaica. She also has strong Northern California roots, having been born in Oakland and having served as San Francisco district attorney.

“I’m going to let the field settle down a bit to see if there is a pathway” to the Senate, Schiff said. “There is a real opportunity for a candidate from Southern California. The biggest influence [on his decision] is what the field will look like.”

If Schiff runs, he wouldn’t be giving up much actual power in the House, but he’d be sacrificing a certain amount of media fame. As the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, he’s a regular on network news and Sunday shows, as well as on cable news and National Public Radio.

That comes with a downside in the ethnic politics that are so important in California elections. Sanchez and Becerra, if they run, would divide the important Latino vote. Harris, backed by the politically influential fundraising group EMILY’S List, would battle Sanchez for women’s support and have a clear field appealing to African-Americans and South Asian-Americans. Schiff is the only white Democrat now considering running for the Senate, and the only Jew.

That’s why his highly visible intelligence committee job has good and bad aspects. The news coverage is good. But it requires Schiff to constantly give his opinions on the shifting and volatile negotiations with Iran and on Netanyahu.

Schiff’s approach is moderate.

Criticizing Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of Congress and the letter by Republican senators scorning the negotiations, Schiff said, “We’ve done a good job of negotiating against ourselves and helping Iran.” If negotiations fail, he said, “I don’t want it perceived by the international community that we scuttled it.” Netanyahu’s speech and the senators’ letter, he said, “didn’t help.”

Schiff favors giving negotiations among Iran, the U.S. and its partner nations a chance, knowing that “you don’t come away from an implacable foe with everything you want.” He said he knows that “Iran is certainly moving to … where they can build a bomb in short order if they want to do it.” And, he said, “It is imperative that Iran not get the bomb.”

Military action, he said, would result in a “temporary setback” in an Iranian nuclear arms program and would require “sustained air and ground” forces in operations that would have to be renewed “every couple of years.”

For the present, Schiff wants the negotiators — the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, Germany and China — to develop a plan with Iran to slow the nation’s nuclear development under penalty of increased sanctions on the Iranian economy. He opposes legislation calling for an immediate increase in sanctions. “I don’t think we should legislate until we see if there is an agreement or the framework for an agreement,” he said.

Just how this moderate stand would play in a statewide Senate race is unknown. Also important for Schiff is how it plays in the Jewish community, which would be part of his voting and financial support.

I asked him how he thinks his approach would go over in the heated atmosphere of synagogues and other Jewish community venues where he would have to campaign. “There will be some people who disagree with you, and that’s the end of the story,” he said. “But people are willing to overlook differences. People want a representative who doesn’t necessarily agree with them on everything. That’s the best any elected official can offer.”

That made perfect sense, talking in the calm of an Echo Park coffeehouse. He’ll have to see if it will stand up in the heat of a political campaign.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

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