Powerful Congressman Henry Waxman seeks to represent the South Bay in a newly drawn Congressional district. He faces a challenge from local businessman Bill Bloomfield
Saturday afternoon, Congressman Henry Waxman was in a place he’d never been before.
He was at the Jewish Community Center in Redondo Beach. This, in and of itself, was nothing particularly unusual. Waxman is the most tenured and arguably most powerful Jewish member of Congress and has long said that his 43-year career in public service grew out of conscientiousness derived from his faith.
What was different is that Waxman, 73, was in the South Bay. The Democrat has served in Congress since 1975, but his district had, until this year, cohered around his home in Beverly Hills. The former District 30 included Beverly Hills, Malibu, Santa Monica, and parts of West LA. The newly drawn District 33 reaches north and west to Agoura Hills and south to the Beach Cities and Palos Verdes. By Waxman’s own reckoning, 45 percent of the district is comprised of voters he has not represented before.
And then there was the matter of the man standing beside him in the synagogue. Bill Bloomfield is running for elected office for his first time, and though his candidacy is considered a long-shot by most political observers, he has mounted a well-funded offensive against Waxman.
Bloomfield, 62, is running as an independent, after leaving the Republican Party in March of last year. He is a businessman who lives in Manhattan Beach – where he is co-owner of The Strand House restaurant – who has tapped into his personal wealth to organize an aggressive campaign to unseat Waxman. He has spent nearly $7 million of his own money thus far, largely on mailers and television commercials that assail Waxman as a “hyper-partisan” Democrat who has helped create political gridlock in Washington D.C., a big spending liberal who has contributed to the deficit and a stooge of “Big Pharma” and other special interest campaign contributors. One of his recent mailers depicts three shadowy figures and declares that drug companies received billions of tax dollars through “a backroom deal” Waxman supported.
Waxman has been reelected 16 times with little serious opposition, much less a bankrolled opponent able to direct such sustained fire at him. In an interview last week, he estimated that Bloomfield would spend $10 million in this campaign.
“He’s got a lot of money to spend, and that is why he has to be taken seriously as a candidate,” Waxman said. “It’s all his own money, and no one is going to spend as much money in any Congressional contest this year as he will. And I find that pretty remarkable. It’s one of the reasons why I’d like to see public funding of campaigns. It’s a shame people have to raise money who don’t have it automatically the way he does, through the old fashioned way of inheriting it.”
Both candidates appeared exasperated with each other Saturday afternoon. Bloomfield often paced as Waxman spoke, grimacing or smiling ruefully. Bloomfield, who was a key financial backer of both the redistricting effort and the new “open primary” system in California, which enables candidates to run more effectively outside party lines, offered himself as reformer. He and his father, he noted, erected a billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard 25 years ago that targeted the tobacco industry by keeping a running count of smoking-related deaths.
“I have taken on special interests my entire life, including the ones that fund both political parties,” Bloomfield said.
He noted that as a private citizen he’d been unusually active in the public realm, funding freedom fighters in Syria and the democracy movement in Iran.
“I have done a lot as a private citizen and I could do more in Congress,” Bloomfield said. “I didn’t wake up one day at 62 years of age and say it would be really cool to be called to Congress and go to, for heaven’s sakes, Washington D.C. I love my life in Manhattan Beach. I love spending time with my grandkids. But I will be darned if I am going to sit back and watch our country race towards insolvency.”
Waxman was relatively low-key but clearly riled by the many charges Bloomfield has leveled against him. He has run a television ad countering Bloomfield’s claims titled “He will say anything.” The Congressman took particular issue with the mailer that accused him of allying himself with pharmaceutical companies, noting that he’d drawn the ire of “Big Pharma” as he helped pass legislation that opened up the market to generic drugs.
“Nobody has done more to lower prices, via generic competition, for brand name drugs,” Waxman said. “And I insisted we get discounts to people at very low-income levels….I resented that piece, and I just wanted to say that publicly.”
The mailer in question, or at least the charge it made, was apparently brought to the attention of President Barrack Obama, who last week issued a statement in support of Waxman.
“No one has done more to hold the pharmaceutical industry accountable than Henry Waxman,” the president said.
Waxman on Saturday touted a long and productive career as a Congressman, one that includes co-authoring, with a Republican, the Clean Air Act, and leading the high-profile investigations into tobacco companies in the 1980s that would eventually lead to warning labels and advertising restrictions. Waxman claimed that he has passed more legislation than any sitting member of Congress, a feat he said could not have been accomplished without bipartisan support.
His opponent, Waxman argued, has his own partisan history. He implied that Bloomfield may be running as an independent simply because District 33 is Democratic-leaning, with 54 to 38 percent registration advantage for Democrats versus Republicans.
“There is nothing wrong with being a Republican,” Waxman said. “There is nothing wrong with being a Democrat. I think people should be commended for caring and trying to figure out what are the best things to do. Mr. Bloomfield is running not as a Republican, but as a decline to state. He calls himself an independent. [Yet] there are several facts you should know. He’s been a Republican all his life.”
Waxman noted that Bloomfield donated more than $2 million to Republican candidates and causes, including recent contributions to Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“These are the facts. Is Mr. Bloomfield independent? You decide,” Waxman said. “I think that should be stated. I don’t think he could win if he ran as a Republican in this district. He couldn’t. I would be sitting on the beach in Manhattan Beach enjoying the sun if he ran as a Republican, but he is presenting himself as somebody different than who he has been. I am running on my record; he has to run on his record.”
Bloomfield said this charge fell in the area of “no good deed goes unpunished.” He said that he attended Boehner’s fundraising event because he wanted to talk to the Speaker about the Affordable Health Act and how it should be handled. He doesn’t support repealing the law, but instead reforming it. And he said he went to McConnell’s event because his friend John McCain and his wife Cindy were going and he wanted to introduce his mother.
Bloomfield, in fact, cited McConnell’s statement that the GOP’s main focus should be ending Obama’s presidency as the “last straw” that convinced him to leave the party and said he withdrew support from Romney when he tilted more dramatically to the right. He noted that he’d always supported candidates and causes from both parties but finally decided that the best way forward was to be a part of neither and instead co-found the non-partisan group No Labels.
“So if you believe people can’t change and what you were 20 years ago is what you are today, fine,” Bloomfield said. “But I don’t think that is the way the world works, and if you care about getting Congress working – we are talking two years, for heaven’s sake.”
The candidates also sparred over redistricting. Waxman said the idea of a non-partisan redistricting commission is laudable but only if it were done in every state. The result of California passing its own redistricting law, he said, was California’s loss of several senior members of Congress – including Republican Jerry Lewis, the senior member of the powerful House Appropriations committee who played a key role in saving the Los Angeles Air Force Base from closure. Lewis retired when his district was drastically changed, Waxman said.
“I want to talk about the unintended consequences of good intentions…,” Waxman said. “California is weaker, vis-à-vis the rest of the country, in protecting out interests as a result of this redistricting in California only.”
He said that that campaign finance reform should have been a more urgent priority.
“I think I am going to win, although I am going to be outspent four to one by Mr. Bloomfield, who is spending $7 million to $10 million of his own money,” Waxman said. “The reforms we need are to get money out of politics….I would like to see a candidate structure where people don’t have to grovel for money. I don’t want a government that is only made up of people who can afford to pay for their campaigns out of their own pockets.”
Bloomfield was incredulous.
“The Congressman just made a case for taking away our democracy,” he said. “I mean, let’s go to King George III and we don’t have to vote. With all due respect, that is the most outlandish thing – that we should just not have elections. With all due respect, for 38 years, there have been no elections – you have run in safe seats…[Without election reform], we wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t be running.”
“As far as the dig about money, sir, you have been office 38 years, and many of those years you have had your party in power in the president, the House, and Senate…. So for God’s sakes change the campaign finance rules so people can run and so I can be on the beach enjoying my grandkids.”
The two candidates, despite their sharp differences, have one overarching commonality: both are passionate about public policy.
Waxman is an unassuming man. He short of stature and soft-spoken, the son of grocer from Watts who grew up in household in which Franklin Delano Roosevelt was revered for championing the underdog and steering the United States through the Great Depression. He believes deeply in government, and has proven himself extremely adept at digging deep into its grit and gears.
“My father was a grocer,” Waxman said. “We lived above the store. His family was hard-hit during the Great Depression. He taught me that if FDR and the Democrats had not fought for the people, they would have been ignored. And I’ve always believed that government can play an important role in helping people. That is what I have tried to do in all my years of public service.”
His doggedness is legendary. The Nation magazine described him as “Congress’s Elliot Ness” for the way he utilized his office’s investigative powers. He has investigated a wide range of matters, including the tobacco industry, Enron, Halliburton, the flu vaccine, steroid use in baseball, and George W. Bush’s administration’s Weapons of Mass Destruction claims that lead to the invasion of Iraq. He currently serves as the senior Democrat on the influential House Commerce and Energy Committee.
Waxman cites his work on reining in tobacco companies as an example how Washington works and why his long tenure matters. Early on, the powerful tobacco lobby held sway, Waxman said, noting that at the outset of the hearings he conducted, tobacco companies argued that their product wasn’t even addictive.
“It took almost 20 years to get legislation passed,” Waxman said. “I know that in an interview Mr. Bloomfield said he’d go to Washington and in two years straighten things out and come back to beautiful Manhattan Beach. Things take time. It takes a lot of work. Saying you want to fix things doesn’t make it happen. You have to work hard, and be willing to work with other people.”
“I have been a Congressman for 37 years,” Waxman said at Saturday’s forum. “My way of behaving as a public official is to try to make life better for people. I fight for what I believe in. I don’t pretend to be anything I am not, and I have always reached across the aisle to bring Republicans with me to pass important bills.”
Bloomfield is a tall, vibrantly expressive man. He grew up in West Los Angeles and moved to Manhattan Beach two decades ago. His father made the family’s fortune through coin-operated laundry operations and Bloomfield expanded into real estate. But he always showed a strong interest in using the family’s wealth in the public sphere – the anti-smoking sign in Westwood was his idea, and he has long been deeply involved in funding various campaigns. He also has a record of supporting candidates on both sides of the aisle, contributing to former Democratic Congresswoman Jane Harman’s campaigns as well as Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the last election for California Attorney General, he contributed both to Republican Steve Cooley and Democrat Chris Kelly in the primaries.
In some ways, Bloomfield may not have left the Republican Party so much as it left him behind in its rightward tilt. He is socially liberal, a supporter of a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage.
“I have not changed my ideology one iota,” Bloomfield said Saturday. “I’ve always been conservative on fiscal issues and moderately liberal on social issues…I believe that I best ideologically lineup with this district.”
In an interview, he stressed that his candidacy is driven less issue-by-issue than it is the one overarching theme of ending partisan gridlock.
“We have a lot of problems in our country that are growing in severity, and Congress is the key to solving them, yet it is locked up in hyper-partisanship,” Bloomfield said in an interview last week. “What I tell people is that I am not running against Congressman Waxman because fiscally he is so much more liberal than I am, which he is. I am not running because I line up better than he does in this district, which I do. I am running against him because of how hyper-partisan he is. He is as uniquely unqualified for helping to get Congress working as I am qualified. I have worked on redistricting reform and open primaries, and those are two of the long-term solutions we need. Congressman Waxman fought them both. He has been part of the problem.”
“I tell people I don’t care how liberal you are, and I don’t care how conservative you are, or how many issues you disagree with me on – you have to agree with me on one thing: it’s not working,” Bloomfield said. “We have a 50-50 country before the election, we will have a 50-50 country after the election. So if you want to get something significantly done in the next two years, its going to require bipartisanship. It’s going to require looking for win-win solutions and losing the my way or the highway mentality that has infected so many people in D.C.” ER