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Key Jewish California lawmakers return to powerful roles in new Congress

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

February 1, 2007 | 7:00 pm

The 2006 congressional election that brought the Democrats back to power on Capitol Hill was a moment filled with meaning for four Jewish lions of California politics -- Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (Van Nuys).

After six years in the wilderness as the minority during the polarizing Bush presidency, they have suddenly been given an unexpected second chance to be at the center of national policy. And with the 2008 presidential race looking very competitive, both within and between the parties, the Jewish community in Los Angeles also finds itself back in the middle of things.

For Waxman and Berman, in particular, the moment is delicious because the highly disciplined House was a prison under Republican speakers, and the Democratic majority is now large enough to allow them to take their time planning hearings.

The key to the House of Representatives is the committee and subcommittee system. Members have little power individually, unless they are in the party leadership, but when they exercise their power through committees, they can move mountains. The majority chooses virtually all the committee chairs, and that means that each of these political figures will have a forum from which to issue subpoenas, run hearings and propose legislation.

Waxman has the premier spot as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a perch from which he can roam throughout the government. The image of Waxman waving a subpoena must ruin the sleep of many White House staffers.

Undoubtedly, Waxman will explore the role of Bush administration officials in overriding the decisions of professionals in federal agencies, the secrecy that has surrounded government decision making, crises in public health and even profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq. Administration officials used to being coddled by Congress will find Waxman a much tougher customer. Barely able to contain his readiness, Waxman noted that there was so much to investigate that it was only a matter of deciding where to start.

Berman is a member of the Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Courts. Along with Judiciary Chair John Conyers, Berman has issued a call to close the loophole placed in the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (a Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania) that allows the Justice Department to remove U.S. attorneys and replace them without Senate confirmation.

Two other Jewish Democrats from this area will have important roles in national security matters. Rep. Jane Harman (Wilmington) had a choice position coming her way as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, but conflicts with then-incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) ended that dream, when the new leader passed Harman over for chair in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Harman did land a position as chair of the Homeland Security Committee's Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. From that spot, her considerable experience in intelligence and national security will showcase her, while she tries to rebuild her relationship with the speaker.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) has earned a choice seat on the Judiciary Committee and the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. He has staked out a tough position on Iran's potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, calling it a far greater threat than Iraq ever posed.

For Feinstein and Boxer, the world looks a little different. Individual senators are extremely important, regardless of their committee positions. But the Senate majority rests precariously on one vote, that of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a different sort of Jewish Democrat.

While winning re-election as an independent in very blue Connecticut, Lieberman appeared to be critical of President Bush's Iraq policy. Once back in office, he has taken to implying that the president's critics are lending "aid and comfort" to our enemies.

His fellow Democrats fear that he wants to join the Republicans and thereby swing control of the Senate back. Boxer, ever vigilant to electoral challenges as the more liberal of the two senators, can hear rumors that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might run for her seat in 2010. And yet, even with these unknowns, as senators they have great authority and public attention.

The two Senators will not only have key committee positions (Feinstein on Intelligence and Appropriations, Boxer as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) but access to national media. Expect Feinstein to play a leading role in the Iraq debate and other military matters, and Boxer to be central to discussions about education, choice and the environment. Much of the social agenda of the Bush administration has been conducted quietly through administrative decisions (such as imposing limits on family planning in international programs), a situation that can only be rectified by active congressional oversight.

A great unknown is the political impact of America's relationship with Iran on these leading Jewish Democrats. They have all become vocal opponents of the Iraq War, despite, in some cases, being initially supportive.

Iran presents a different case. Supporters of Israel consider Iran to be a profound threat, especially if it should acquire nuclear weapons.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear to be laying the groundwork for possible war with Iran. Based on the Iraq experience, few have much confidence in the ability of the Bush administration to handle this crisis well.

Yet Jewish Democrats will still want to make sure that Iran's nuclear ambitions are not realized. Perhaps these California Democrats, some of whom are on pivotal national security committees or subcommittees, can craft a wise but forceful policy with Iran that can win public support and prevent another catastrophic foreign policy failure.

Having these long-serving members back in positions of power is going to make a real difference in national government. They have seen it all, from having great impact to being in the doghouse. Like athletes who know how hard it is to win a championship, they will be careful not to waste a second of their time at the top. They will question and probe, inquire and complain. An administration unused to being challenged will face oversight every working day.

But more than that is going on. Congressional elections always set the tone for the next presidential election, and 2006 has set the stage for 2008. California Jews, especially in the Los Angeles area, will play a significant role in that contest. When the Republicans are in power in Washington, the Jewish political world is usually on the outside looking in, except in matters regarding Israel. With the exception of Israel, the Jewish political orientation (pro-science, pro-choice, favoring economic equality and internationalism) is completely at odds with the contemporary Republican agenda in national politics.

Republicans have made inroads with Jewish voters when the Democrats are perceived as less supportive of Israel and when Republicans run socially moderate candidates, but when Democrats put forward strongly pro-Israel candidates, Jewish voters are much harder to wrest away.

California's Jewish political leadership is in a position to have a significant impact on the battle for the White House. Over the course of the 20th century, California went from being an outpost of the national Jewish community, dwarfed by New York state's Jewish population, to its position today as the second-largest agglomeration of Jews in the nation. It has also gone from a reliable Republican bastion to a largely predictable Democratic state.

The core of Jewish political strength in California is the Los Angeles area. A half-million Jews, with high levels of education and extraordinary voter turnout in a region where relatively few whites have strong ethnic ties, adds up to a big political force. This power has largely been exercised within the Democratic Party, the ancestral and continuing home of the vast majority of American Jews, with occasional forays into the Republican camp. (The most recent Republican to do well with Jews is Schwarzenegger, the socially moderate governor; before him, it was the equally moderate former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan.)

More than 80 percent of Los Angeles Jews count themselves as Democrats. From Fairfax to the ocean, highly competitive seats in the state Assembly and Senate, as well as the U.S. Congress, have been won and held by Jewish candidates.

There are really two different and overlapping Jewish political forces in Los Angeles. There is the highly successful local and regional politics that has led to significant Jewish office holding. Then there is the Hollywood connection, wealthy donors and big names whose interests are much more in national than local politics. With the changing political climate in Washington, both are coming into play and will probably cross over.

Two local politicians, Berman and Waxman, built the famous Waxman-Berman machine in the 1970s that placed candidates into Assembly and Senate seats. (Not all of their favored candidates were Jewish; they also aided the careers of a number of minority candidates.)

Berman became a marvel at creative redistricting. Waxman and Berman helped Tom Bradley win the mayoralty in 1973 but were ultimately more successful in Sacramento than in Los Angeles. One of their local allies did do very well, when Zev Yaroslavsky, who won a L.A. City Council seat as a 26-year-old firebrand in 1975, moved on to the county Board of Supervisors.

In 1974, Waxman went to Congress with the Watergate class, and Berman joined him in the 1982 elections, another strong Democratic year during the Reagan recession. While Berman retained his influence in the California redistricting process, Waxman became known for his work on Capitol Hill.

Waxman and Berman toiled in opposition to Republican White Houses. Waxman used the committee system to hold hearings, to conduct investigations and to be in all ways a pain in the neck to conservative Republican presidents. Waxman re-invented himself, shedding the image of "boss" (always an exaggeration anyway) to become one of the heroes of American progressives with his remarkable legislative skills. And things seemed likely to get even better in 1992, when Democrats finally won the White House.

In 1992, California voters made history. First they voted for the Democratic candidate for president, Bill Clinton, in a shift from past patterns. No Democrat had won California since 1948, save Lyndon Johnson in his 1964 landslide.

The Clinton-Gore ticket in 1992 was supremely appealing to Jewish voters. The Democratic candidates were pro-Israel, socially liberal and ideologically centrist, while the George H.W. Bush White House was seen as less supportive of Israel.

Astoundingly, California voters also elected two Jewish women as U.S. senators, Feinstein and Boxer, who were on the same ballot because of an uncompleted term. Feinstein and Boxer were both from Northern California but differed politically. Boxer has been much more the liberal, Feinstein the centrist. Their prospects seemed limitless, as did the hopes for a long-term Democratic majority.

The majority lasted for exactly one Congress. In 1994, the Republicans threw the incumbent party out of power. When George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, outsider status was complete, as Republicans ruthlessly ensured that Democrats had nothing to do with national policy, and Bush's strongly pro-Israel policy threatened to attract Jewish voters.

Democrats in Congress began to despair that they would never be able to play a role on the national stage again. Then 2006 changed the layout.

Once considered Republican territory, California is now a pillar of the Democratic Party in national politics. The massive fundraising base in Hollywood and on the liberal Westside draws presidential candidates as much as the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. Once all that money came from New York astate, much of it from Jewish donors. That monopoly is now a duopoly.

While Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) has a lock on the Jewish funders in New York state, the massive Hollywood and Westside Los Angeles constituency is still divided and open to competition. If an insurgency forms against the Clinton candidacy, it will take root out here, far from the Washington establishment. In February, Dreamworks executives will host a fundraiser for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Even moderate Republican presidential candidates, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and maybe Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, will find a very receptive audience among a number of Jewish Los Angeles donors. And imagine this: On Sunday, Feb. 25, the Academy Awards will be broadcast worldwide from the Kodak Theater at Hollywood and Highland. In the virtual world of Los Angeles media, is that a local, national or international event?

Al Gore has been nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," and has said he will attend. Academy voters are notoriously sentimental, and who would not want to see him accept the award?

If Adlai Stevenson's tumultuous welcome at the 1960 Democratic National Convention almost changed the path to the nomination for John F. Kennedy, would a dynamic acceptance speech do something comparable for a much bigger audience? And here is where the national and local worlds begin to flow into one another.

With so much attention on California with both party nominations wide open, the California delegation will be even more prominent. National leaders will be seeking to "speak California" and will observe more than just the California congressional delegation with renewed interest. With the Republican governor taking a progressive stance on global warming, the minimum wage and to some degree on health care, and with L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a sought-after star in Washington, D.C., the political profile of America's second-largest Jewish community is going to be impressive.

With congressional leaders under pressure to develop new policies as alternatives to the approaches taken by the Bush administration on Iraq, health care and the environment, the Jewish members of the California delegation may find California, once seen as outside the mainstream, becoming the national model.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton. {--Tracker Pixel for Entry--}

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