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Boxer Not Willing to Pull Punches

Times Staff Writer

A new blog is promoting her for president. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” spoofed her hair and her props. Some senatorial colleagues are secretly urging her to “go, girl, go.” And Democratic coffers are filling up with her every volley.

With liberals dusting themselves off after their November setbacks, California Sen. Barbara Boxer has emerged as the Left’s new flamethrower.

The only senator to contest the Electoral College results and the lead interrogator in the battle over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s nomination, Boxer has unquestionably angered President Bush. And GOP strategists have gleefully seized upon her as a symbol of blue-state liberalism.

Within her party, Boxer’s new star turn gets mixed reviews. To some, her grilling of Rice at the confirmation hearings was her finest hour. She challenged the nominee’s “respect for the truth” in an oration against the Iraq war that prompted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to launch a fundraising appeal in her name.

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Websites call it the Boxer Rebellion.

To others -- and many in Washington suspect that California’s other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, is among them -- her lambasting of Rice casts Boxer as an attack dog whose tactics will alienate mainstream voters. Feinstein had introduced Rice at the confirmation hearings.

But whatever others think, to those who have watched Boxer’s political career over almost 30 years as a Marin County supervisor and a member of the House and the Senate, the only difference this time is that the whole nation may have been watching. The rest is vintage Boxer, the signature style of her whole career.

“This is just Boxer being Boxer,” said David Sandretti, the senator’s communications director.

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Or, as Bruce Cain, who heads the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley, put it: “It’s very simple. Boxer looked like Feinstein until the election. Now she’s Boxer again.”

Boxer professes to marvel at how she has suddenly become the hot Democratic celebrity. She is lionized by her blogger fans as “a true liberal, unlike the weenie-Dems in the Senate and House.” She “has the courage of her convictions,” one blogger wrote, comparing her favorably to the “conscience of the Senate,” the late Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.).

“I’m rather amazed at the response,” she said in an interview. “I’ve been this way all my life.”

And she was amused when “Saturday Night Live” parodied her questioning of Rice and her hair, which Boxer, 64, recently frosted, so that “if and when the gray starts growing in I don’t have to worry.” The skit lampooned her use of charts during the Rice hearings by, among other things, placing a miniature volcano on her desk and having it erupt periodically.

“I never laughed so hard,” she said. “They nailed the whole debate. It was really a great takeoff on how I make my case.”

There is talk that she may be a dark-horse candidate for president (presidentboxer.blogspot.com is promoting the idea) and her Senate staff says 30 bouquets from supporters arrived in her office after she contested the 2004 election results.

But Boxer eschews any suggestion of ambition for higher office.

“I would not run for president,” she said. “I really like what I’m doing now. People say I’m giving them energy and hope.”

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She also may be giving Democrats political cover -- playing the bad cop to help party leaders like Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) avoid the fate that befell former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was defeated after Republicans targeted him for blocking judicial nominations.

Unlike Reid and Daschle, Boxer (like Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York) comes from a solidly blue state where her fervent liberal views are less likely to provoke a backlash.

“I think it’s part of a bigger strategy to use someone who is from a pretty blue state to challenge the Senate GOP leadership and the White House at every turn,” said Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report, a political newsletter.

“As for Boxer, it appears that not having to run for another six years has freed her to speak her mind.”

Not that she’s ever been shy about that sort of thing.

When a military watchdog group alerted her to Pentagon misspending, Boxer took to the House floor to expose $7,600 coffeepots and $600 toilet seats. When the Senate Judiciary Committee was weighing the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, she marched with six other congresswomen to the Senate to hear Anita Hill accuse him of sexual harassment.

When then-Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) was accused of kissing female Senate staffers, she pressed for ethics hearings. He resigned in 1995 after the Senate Ethics Committee unanimously recommended his expulsion.

If Boxer is as pugilistic as her name suggests, her activism too is part of her heritage.

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Born in Brooklyn, she ran for co-captain of a cheerleading squad at Brooklyn College. It was her first victory at the polls; she takes pride in that, even though the basketball team didn’t win a game.

Later she experienced her first grass-roots campaign, organizing her apartment house to force the landlord to renovate the lobby.

Her feminism also had its roots in Brooklyn. There, according to the Almanac of American Politics, she was sexually harassed by a college professor and, later, was passed over for a job as a stockbroker.

She moved to Northern California shortly after marrying Stewart Boxer. They were taken with the region while visiting relatives but couldn’t afford San Francisco’s housing prices. So in 1968 they moved to Greenbrae, in Marin County, where they still live.

With two kids, and a lawyer husband, she was a Democratic mom in a Republican stronghold. Boxer formed a group with other friends called the Marin Alternative, which worked against the Vietnam War and contested a local developer’s plans to build a neighborhood on wetlands.

She made her first run for Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1972, losing to a well-established Republican. Neighbors admonished her that a wife and mother had no place in public office.

By the time she ran again four years later, the women’s liberation movement had gained traction. That helped her defeat incumbent Peter Arrigoni.

In six years on the Marin County board, 10 years in Congress and 12 years in the Senate, she has not lost an election -- although she’s taken some hits along the way.

During the House banking scandal in 1992, when it was disclosed that she had 143 overdrafts from the House Bank, she told the Los Angeles Times that lawmakers’ checking account records were none of the public’s business.

A few years ago, she contemplated retirement. But that was before 9/11, before the budget deficit ballooned, before national unity frayed. It was before she took to the Senate floor to criticize the Bush administration’s handling of terrorism, and before House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) faulted her for attacking the president in a time of war.

That did it. She told her staff and her family to prepare for another campaign.

Her electoral success owes something to her ability to mute her rhetoric during campaign season. Stumping for reelection last year, she touted a list of legislative accomplishments, including bills enacted with Republican help. “Nobody in the U.S. Senate can get anything done if they can’t work across the aisle,” Boxer said.

Now, she is newly emboldened. She told staffers on election night that she would not “be afraid to stand alone.”

After seeing Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911" at a Washington premiere studded with Democratic power players, Boxer said she felt guilty for not contesting the results of the 2000 election. Given “the amount of electoral irregularities” in 2004, she said, this time she wanted to stand up against the results -- even though Bush won the key state of Ohio by 118,000 votes.

Mark DiCamillo, director of California’s Field Poll, said he thought her current activism owed something to her 2004 electoral tallies. “It’s striking to me that Sen. Boxer came out of this election stronger than she’s ever been. She’s never had a comfortable election before. She won this by 20 [percentage] points -- she won 54% of men, 60% of independents, she carried San Diego County with 52%,” he said.

“It gives her a little more latitude than ever before.”

Boxer has left little doubt that she will try to use her electoral muscle to “hold the Bush administration accountable.” Recently, she was called for jury duty in Marin County and explained to the judge that she did not have time to serve because she had to prepare for the Rice confirmation hearings.

The week after the hearings, she went grocery shopping in Marin at the same store she has patronized for 38 years, where shoppers know to leave her alone. This time, in the produce section, she was approached by several constituents who wanted to thank her and one who wanted to admonish her.

She takes praise and criticism in stride.

“I’ve taken lonely votes in my life. I’ve asked tough questions,” she said. “Otherwise, what’s the point of being in the world, let alone in the Senate?”

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Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, Faye Fiore and Scott Martelle contributed to this report.


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