The sudden retirement of Rep. Henry A. Waxman set off a land rush Thursday of politicians and other prospects eyeing an exceedingly rare shot at an open congressional seat in one of the most affluent, strongly Democratic redoubts in the country.
By the end of the day, amid all the pent-up ambition, there was one declared candidate — former Los Angeles Controller Wendy Greuel — and more than half a dozen others considering a bid to replace Waxman in what could be an expensive, crowded and highly competitive free-for-all.
“This is the type of seat that opens up once every generation, and if you’re elected you’ve got a lifetime job, as long as you don’t get caught up in scandal,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a former Republican strategist who competed against Waxman and his powerful Democratic operation and now publishes the California Target Book, a nonpartisan guide to state elections.
Potential contestants include state Sens. Ted Lieu of Torrance and Fran Pavley of Agoura Hills; Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica; Secretary of State Debra Bowen, a former South Bay lawmaker; local radio host Matt Miller; women’s rights activist Sandra Fluke — all Democrats — and Manhattan Beach businessman Bill Bloomfield, an independent and former Republican who spent $7 million of his own money in an unsuccessful 2012 race against Waxman.
Even before the congressman announced his 20th term would be his last, two other political independents had stated their plans to run: Brent Roske, a television producer and director, and Marianne Williamson, the author of several self-help books.
Amid Thursday’s swirl of rumors and speculation, with fresh names surfacing almost hourly, a few possible contenders took themselves out of the race.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he would not run. Sheila Kuehl, a former state senator and assemblywoman who represented the Westside and the Valley, and Bobby Shriver, a former mayor of Santa Monica and nephew of President Kennedy, both said they would continue their campaigns for a seat on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
The retiring supervisor they aim to replace, Zev Yaroslavsky, did not explicitly rule out a try for Waxman’s seat but made it seem highly unlikely. “My first reaction is [that] to be a [congressional] freshman at the age of 65 is not something I’ve longed to do all my life,” Yaroslavsky said.
Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley of Oak Park, facing a tough reelection fight in her more Republican-leaning district, sought to quash the notion she would move back to Santa Monica and try for Waxman’s seat. “It is a great honor to represent Ventura County in Congress,” Brownley said in a statement, “and I hope to be able to do so for many years to come.”
Strongly Democratic by registration, California’s 33rd Congressional District stretches along the coast from Malibu to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, taking in the wealthy hubs of Beverly Hills, Bel-Air, Brentwood and Pacific Palisades. It is home to Hollywood moguls and celebrities as well as some of the biggest donors in the Democratic Party, a fundraising base that Waxman used to great political advantage, as could, presumably, his successor.
But even before his election to Congress, Waxman was a political power, a partner in the “Berman-Waxman machine” that flexed its muscles for more than two decades from a base on Los Angeles’ Westside.
Grooming candidates for positions from city councils to the state Legislature to Capitol Hill, Waxman, former Rep. Howard L. Berman and their team of campaign operatives were innovators in voter persuasion, the use of targeted mail and the bundling of campaign cash. Berman’s brother, Michael, managed Waxman’s first campaign — a 1968 upset election to the state Assembly — and for years played a major role in the drawing of California’s political boundaries.
The power of the machine waned, however, as demographics changed, modern technology surpassed their creativity, and the principals increasingly lost interest in local politics, turning their focus to national and international affairs. In the ultimate blow, Berman lost his seat in Congress in a fratricidal 2012 race against a fellow Democrat, Brad Sherman.
Thursday’s announcement represented another shudder in a seismic shift in the local political landscape; Waxman’s seat is suddenly available at the same time there is a rare opening on the five-member Board of Supervisors as well as an open-seat race for county sheriff.
On the state level, after years of stasis California is suddenly teeming with congressional competition. Only a single House seat traded partisan hands from 2000 to 2010. But this year alone there are more than half a dozen races that could produce a switch.
The change results from two factors: the redrawing of political boundaries by a nonpartisan commission after the 2010 census, which made many districts more competitive, and rules allowing the top two primary voter-getters to advance to a November runoff, regardless of party.
In 2012, the first test of newly drawn districts and the top-two system, Waxman faced his first serious challenge in years. Running as an independent, Bloomfield won 46% of the vote and forced Waxman to devote more time to his own race and less effort to helping Berman, his decades-old friend and political ally.
“We’re leaning toward running,” Bloomfield said Thursday evening, having already commissioned a poll to gauge his strength for a second try.
Greuel was not hedging, or waiting, in what appeared to be a deliberate effort to brush back other candidates.
“When I woke up this morning, I had no idea that someone as powerful as Henry Waxman would be retiring,” said last year’s runner-up in the race for Los Angeles mayor, who planned to move to live inside the district. “I knew instantly in my gut that this district, the 33rd District, and his position was something I knew I could make a difference in. He’s a fighter and that’s who I’ve been, and I want to do that in Congress.”
Lieu intended to reveal his plans soon.
“Today and for decades to come we will honor Congress member Waxman,” the state senator said in a statement issued Thursday afternoon. “Tomorrow I will make a formal announcement regarding my intentions.”
Times staff writers Martha Groves in Los Angeles and Melanie Mason in Sacramento contributed to this report.