Richard Reeves

A Little Giant Retires

LOS ANGELES -- I took my J448 students -- that's "Government and Public Affairs Reporting" at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism at the University of Southern California -- to a local Democratic club last Sunday. I wanted them to see and meet the new mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, and one of the most effective elected officials of his generation, Congressman Henry Waxman.

I did not know and I am not sure that he did, either, that this would be Waxman's last campaign stop after almost 50 years at the center of the political life of Los Angeles, California and the United States. Five days later, the politician Washington Monthly once called "The Marathon Man" surprised everyone around here by announcing he was going to retire at the end of this year, his 40th as a member of the U.S. Congress.

I had applauded, on cue, as he said that during his time poverty among elderly Americans had decreased from 23 percent to 9 percent, that he wanted to push President Obama on tapping the phones of his citizens, and that he hoped to push Republicans and other conservatives to "respect science" on such matters as climate change. Truth be told, in as many years as a reporter as he had been a politician, I have not applauded officials no matter what they said. But this time, I was sitting next to his wife, Janet Waxman, and I am no fool.

It is the end of an era here -- and the race to grab his seat in the rich district that runs south from Malibu through Beverly Hills and other nice places, will be a free-for-all in American ambition. Already, the candidates who have announced they are running for his seat in the 33rd Congressional District include a Republican who calls himself an independent, Bill Bloomfield, who spent more than $6 million trying to defeat Waxman two years ago, and the New Age author and guru Marianne Williamson. (The guy to watch is Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is retiring from that job because of term limits.)

California, you may have noticed, is becoming more and more Democratic, partly because Republicans have been trying to put down or throw out Hispanics for decades. But, Waxman, running in a new district created by a nonpartisan citizens commission, won only 54 percent of the vote last time, compared to the 75 percent or so he was used to getting in heavily Jewish, heavily Democratic, West Los Angeles. He almost certainly would have been re-elected this time, but he would have had to raise millions of dollars in campaign funds. He never had to do that before, and I am sure that is why he decided to retire -- that and the fact that no matter how effective he has been in the minority, and before that in Democratic-controlled congresses, it is no fun to be in the minority in the House of Representatives.

Waxman, who is 74 and just 5 foot 5, will be remembered for many things, particularly related to health and environmental issues. Republicans will remember him by the title they gave him, "That Sonovabitch." The rest of us will probably remember a visual: Waxman, as chairman of House Energy and Commerce Committee, lining up the presidents of the seven largest American tobacco companies at a hearing and having them, one by one, say they had no idea smoking might be a health hazard.

In reporting his resignation online, The Los Angeles Times, which often disagreed with him, said of Waxman:

"During a congressional career that began when Gerald R. Ford was president, Waxman became one of the Democratic Party's most prolific and savvy legislators ... He played a central role -- sometimes over opposition within his own party -- in passing laws that dramatically cut air pollution, helped reduce smoking, expanded Medicaid coverage for the poor, reduced pesticides in food, made generic drugs more widely available, helped AIDS patients, promoted the development of drugs for rare diseases and improved federal regulation of nursing homes. Among his legislative victories was the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which he helped write and push through the House."

Well done, buddy!

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