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Sen. Barbara Boxer’s ardor and tenacity cut both ways

After the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans rode an anti-incumbent wave to win both houses of Congress for the first time in 40 years, they sought to roll back regulations they called cumbersome to industry.


FOR THE RECORD:
Barbara Boxer: In the Oct. 21 Section A, a photo caption accompanying a profile of Sen. Barbara Boxer said she had served 10 years in Congress and 18 years in the Senate. It should have said she served 10 years in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate. —



FOR THE RECORD:
Climate change: A profile of Sen. Barbara Boxer in the Oct. 21 Section A incorrectly said that Republicans on the Senate’s environment committee unanimously had voted against a bill on climate change that Boxer pushed in 2007. One Republican member of the committee, Sen. John Warner of Virginia, supported the bill. —


With shell-shocked Democrats in disarray, Sen. Barbara Boxer launched a lonely crusade to fend off the assault on environment and health standards. She held the floor three days in a row.

“People thought Barbara Boxer was pretty insane to be up there alone filibustering that issue,” recalled Lynn Goldman, then a senior official at the Environmental Protection Agency. “But she wasn’t intimidated. And she wouldn’t give up. And once that wave of legislation was held back, the bills were never introduced again.”

Fifteen years later, the California Democrat was crusading for another core concern, a climate change bill. She was the Senate’s most vocal advocate of curbing greenhouse gases, headed a powerful committee and was fiercely determined to win.

But Republicans boycotted her bill in committee, and she could not bridge the divide. As the acrimony intensified, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) agreed to rewrite the bill and take the lead while Boxer worked behind the scenes. Ultimately, the effort collapsed.

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“It turned into something little better than a fiasco,” said Frank O’Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group. “It was just a nightmare of partisan flame-throwing.”

The two episodes illustrate Boxer’s strengths and weaknesses — tenacious and impassioned on one hand, strident and abrasive on the other — as she heads into the final weeks of a bitter re-election race against Republican challenger Carly Fiorina.

In an anti-incumbent year, Boxer hopes to convince voters that her 10 years in the House of Representatives and 18 in the Senate are an advantage and not a liability. There is little dispute about her role there.

“There wouldn’t be a middle without Barbara Boxer,” said Natalie Ravitz, a former senior advisor. “There has to be a left, and a right, and that’s how you get to the middle. She holds down the left.”

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“This is a tough gal, a very tough gal,” said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a longtime friend. “She stands up and fights for what she believes in. And she doesn’t back up a step.”

Determined to blunt charges that Boxer’s street-fighter style and unabashed liberalism have limited her impact in Congress, her staff has compiled every amendment, earmark and other bill she has championed since she became the first woman to head the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works in 2007.

According to their account, which Republicans do not dispute, the panel approved 130 pieces of legislation, and all or part of 55 later became law. None were landmark bills, but the tally surpasses the number passed or enacted under the previous chair, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a conservative Republican.

Her problem is the focus, not the numbers. With economic woes dominating this year’s campaign, Boxer has had to pivot to emphasize job creation and entrepreneurship, not just clean water or new roads.

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“I don’t think she always appreciated their importance like she does today,” said longtime ally Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club.

Otherwise, Boxer’s politics have changed little over the years. Two recent exceptions: she now backs same-sex marriage, not just civil unions. And she favors building, not banning, nuclear power plants to ease America’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Boxer, 69, is sardonic, witty and smart, and she talks almost as quickly as she walks, rattling off a list of votes and projects she has helped deliver to California as her heels clatter down the marble halls of Capitol Hill. (On Sept. 11, 2001, when the Capitol was evacuated and she was urged to shed her high heels and run, she refused. “I said, ‘No terrorist is going to make me take my shoes off,’ ” she recalled in an interview.)

On a recent morning, Boxer meets her first aide at 8 a.m., and then hurries to the Capitol for a strategy session with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Then, a sprint to another building and she calls the environment committee to order. Only three other senators attend and, as often happens, they leave after making brief statements.

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Chin on hand, Boxer listens as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa promotes his 30/10 plan to leverage federal financing to speed construction of transit projects. Boxer promises to help.

“I’m open to all solutions,” Boxer tells him. “If it goes through another committee, that’s OK too. It doesn’t matter.”

In the afternoon, she rushes to a commerce subcommittee hearing into the deadly Sept. 9 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, outside San Francisco. Boxer — again alone on the dais for most of the session — grills witnesses about her proposal to increase pipeline inspections and stiffen penalties for safety violations.

When the two-hour hearing ends inconclusively, she hits her office for more meetings, interviews and calls. At one point, she startles her staff when she abruptly bursts into song, belting out the lyrics she wrote in the early 1980s to persuade House leaders to let women use the all-male gym. (The gym was opened.)

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The former Barbara Levy was raised in a gritty neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Her mother didn’t go to high school, and her father was the first of nine children to do so. Their dark-haired daughter sits at the apex of her 1958 graduating class photo, already the center of attention.

She joined the cheerleading squad at Brooklyn College, which then was tuition-free to New York residents. Unlike most women students, she majored in economics and set her sights on a career as a stockbroker.

She soon learned the hard way that women were effectively barred from all but secretarial jobs on Wall Street.

After three years and three unsatisfying jobs, Boxer and her husband, Stewart Boxer — they married when she was a college senior — headed west to build their future. They raised two children, Doug and Nicole, in Greenbrae, north of San Francisco.

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Boxer jumped into local politics in the early 1970s to erect stop signs, protect marshlands and stop the Vietnam war. She was the first woman to head the Marin County Board of Supervisors. Many viewed her as a rebel, if not a radical.

“She faced a lot of adversity from people who didn’t treat her the way they would treat a man,” recalled Sam Chapman, who later spent 22 years on Boxer’s staff. “But she didn’t give in. It’s her nature to get fired up. And you knew she was going somewhere.”

The opening came in 1982 when Rep. John Burton resigned, citing drug and alcohol addictions.

Boxer was elected to his seat and quickly got noticed in Congress. President Ronald Reagan was spending vast sums to beef up the Pentagon. A whistleblower showed Boxer how much the military was overpaying in noncompetitive contracts.

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“We looked over the list and Barbara said, ‘I want the coffee pot,’ ” recalled Chapman. “It was a $7,600 coffee pot that made two cups of coffee on an Air Force plane.”

The scandal catapulted Boxer onto the front pages. She began sporting a necklace made from a small bracket that the Pentagon had bought for $850. Congress soon passed her bill to overhaul military procurement.

She hit the headlines again in October 1991. The all-male Senate judiciary committee was refusing to consider allegations that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed Anita Hill, a lawyer who had worked for him.

Cameras captured the drama as a grim-faced Boxer and six female House colleagues charged up the Senate steps and literally banged on the door to demand an inquiry. The nationally televised hearings that followed nearly scuttled Thomas’ confirmation.

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The furor helped propel women into the forefront of American politics. A year later, voters tripled the number of women senators from two to six, including two from California — Boxer and her Democratic colleague, Dianne Feinstein. Today, 17 women serve in the Senate and 73 in the House.

Boxer easily won re-election in 1998, and in 2004 she got more votes — nearly 7 million — than any Senate candidate in history.

When the Senate was in session, she flew nearly every weekend back to a condo in Oakland, where her husband practiced law (and her son’s family is a short walk away), or to the solar-paneled desert home in Rancho Mirage that they bought in 2006.

There were troubles along the way. On several occasions, Boxer bought new stock offerings not available to the general public, and quickly sold them for a profit. In 2000, for example, she doubled or tripled her money overnight in four such deals.

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The deals were legal, but critics said Boxer had reaped a windfall from special treatment. She put her portfolio in a blind trust. It is now valued at $1 million to $5 million, according to her most recent financial report.

Over the years, Boxer has pushed to fund afterschool programs, to stiffen toy safety regulations, to extend foster care for older teens, and other family-oriented legislation.

As the high-tech industry grew in importance, she courted Silicon Valley CEOs with meetings, phone calls and legislation favorable to their interests, including a tax cut for multinational firms to repatriate overseas profits. Many have rallied to her side.

Boxer supports “critical issues impacting Silicon Valley, including education, innovation, stock options and tax policies,” said John Chambers, who heads Cisco Systems Inc. Chambers, a Republican who is backing GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman, has endorsed Boxer.

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Still, the environment has been Boxer’s chief focus. She has written legislation to remove arsenic from drinking water, to protect more than 1 million acres of California wilderness, and to protect children from pesticides. She has repeatedly fought to bar new oil and gas drilling off California’s coast.

And in 2007, she corralled enough votes to override President George W. Bush’s veto of a water infrastructure bill that provides $20 billion for ports, waterways and flood control. Critics said the bill was laden with political pork.

In an institution where compromise and consensus is key, however, Boxer can be inflexible.

After the 2004 presidential election, for example, Boxer was the only senator to challenge electoral college votes from Ohio where some Democrats alleged vote fraud. The move infuriated Republicans and delayed certification of Bush’s re-election for several hours. No other Democrat, including Kerry, Bush’s Democratic opponent, supported her.

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And when war fever swept Washington in 2002, Boxer resisted. She was one of the few senators who voted against authorizing Bush to use military force in Iraq.

Boxer calls that vote her proudest.

“I determined when I cast that vote that the Iraq war would be a disaster,” she said. “I was right. That vote has been a comfort to me.”

In January 2005, Boxer turned a routine confirmation hearing into a bruising battle when she accused Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s nominee for secretary of state, of all but lying to justify the invasion.

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The need “to sell the war overwhelmed your respect for the truth,” Boxer said, holding posters of contradictory statements by Rice.

“I really hope you will refrain from impugning my integrity,” Rice responded. The caustic exchange later was parodied on Saturday Night Live.

Two years later Boxer confronted her again, arguing that Rice, who is unmarried and childless, did not appreciate the human toll of the war. “You’re not going to pay a personal price with an immediate family,” Boxer said sternly. A White House spokesman later called it a “leap backward” for feminism; Boxer said he was distorting her comments.

“A lot of people really disagreed with our approach,” recalled Ravitz, the senator’s former advisor. “But Boxer really felt this strongly. Every time a California soldier dies, she sends a letter to the family. Some nights, she gets four or five letters in her folder. That really, really affects her.”

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Boxer’s steadfast support for abortion rights put her at the heart of this year’s healthcare battle. In the final days of debate, Boxer negotiated with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who was demanding guarantees that no federal money be used to pay for abortions. Her credibility on the issue kept abortion-rights activists in line. The maneuver locked in the 60th vote needed to pass the healthcare bill.

Probably no issue has so defined — and so far defeated — Boxer as her efforts to cut greenhouse gases linked to global warming. A climate change bill would be hugely complicated, and the politics and economics are daunting.

Momentum appeared to be building in 2007, and Boxer pushed an ambitious cap-and-trade bill through her committee, rolling over unanimous Republican opposition. But she proved unable to build a coalition to break a filibuster on the Senate floor.

“She staked out a very strong position,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “It could be perceived as too extreme.”

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The attempt last year failed to get even that far. Lukewarm support from the Obama White House, unswerving resistance from Republicans and Senate exhaustion after the grueling healthcare debate turned climate change toxic.

Boxer vows to try again if she is re-elected, and to fight for the policies she has championed her whole career. “I chose a life of public service,” she said. “It’s what I do. It keeps me going.”

bob.drogin@latimes.com


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