Although numerous topics — health care, housing and the controversy over Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling — were touched upon at the April 28 congressional candidates’ forum staged by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Israel dominated the conversation.
The five leading candidates vying for the seat, held for four decades by Democrat Henry Waxman in California’s 33rd Congressional District, spoke before an audience of approximately 75 people. Each candidate delivered opening remarks, then responded to a few questions from the moderator and from audience members.
Waxman, who announced on Jan. 30 that he will not seek re-election, was first elected to Congress in 1974. His high popularity in the 33rd District, which runs from Malibu to Long Beach and includes much of the Westside, has been evidenced by his defeating his opponent with more than 60 percent of the vote in every election year, with the exception of 2012.
Although 18 candidates are vying for the seat, most of the leading ones already have made names for themselves in politics, law and media. The top two candidates coming out of the primary, which will be held June 3, will face off in November.
Matt Miller, a Democrat and the former host of NPR’s political talk show “Left, Right and Center,” is a self-described “fiscal conservative” known for his detailed economic policy positions. He opened by describing his commitment to Israel’s security and casting doubt on negotiating with Iran.
“I’m happy to give peace a chance,” Miller said, “but the same crew that’s in charge now in Iran are the folks who in Europe were saying, ‘Our strategy is to spin the West through PR and spin the centrifuges.’ ”
District Attorney Elan Carr, the sole Republican participating in the forum and one of only three in the race, sought to separate himself from the other candidates by asserting that while they would provide supportive votes on behalf of Israel, he would have the ability, if elected, to influence other members of Congress.
“Look, everyone’s pro-Israel, certainly anyone running here,” Carr said. “But I’m one who can be a leader and a source of influence for my colleagues in the House.” Carr said he is fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, and he pointed to his military experience in Iraq, where he served in 2003, leading anti-terrorism teams in various missions and helping to prosecute terrorists and insurgents in Iraqi courts.
“My experience as an Army officer in the Middle East gave me a perspective of the threats Israel’s facing,” Carr told the audience.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, another candidate onstage Monday evening, closed his remarks with comments on global warming and UV-emitting tanning beds, but like the other contenders, he started off by talking about Israel, criticizing Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that, absent a two-state solution, Israel risks becoming an apartheid state, a characterization that has drawn wide condemnation, particularly from pro-Israel groups.
“Secretary Kerry’s comments recently are offensive,” Lieu said. “He should simply apologize for using the term that he used.”
The other leading candidate is Wendy Greuel, a former Los Angeles city controller and council member who lost to Eric Garcetti in last year’s mayoral race.
Greuel discussed topics ranging from the Keystone pipeline — which she opposes — to Sterling’s recent racist statements. She suggested as well that American negotiators in the Middle East should take a somewhat more hands-off approach with the Israelis and Palestinians, “Not dictating what the outcome is,” she said, “but ensuring that they are talking and moving ahead.”
Marianne Williamson, a best-selling new-age author running as an independent, discussed her spiritual as well as political commitment to Zionism, saying societies must focus as much on making peace as they do on making war, even intimating that Israel, like America, puts too much emphasis on military might.
“Military might alone cannot keep you secure,” Williamson said. “I feel the same way about the Israeli military budget, in many ways, as I do about the American military budget.”
She added, though, that “Israel was insulted” by Kerry’s apartheid remark. “But, as Jews, we’ve been insulted before; we’ll be insulted again,” Williamson said.
Although the Middle East dominated the conversation, and despite each candidate’s predilection to focus on his or her areas of strength — Lieu on global warming, Carr on crime — the forum gave the crowd a chance to learn how candidates are adapting on the go, studying issues that, until now, have not played a large role in their political careers.
Even after discussing Israel, instead of moving on to his topics of choice, economics and education, Miller talked about Syria, questioning what he implied was the arbitrary “red line” set by the Obama administration.
“I never understood why [chemical weapons] was suddenly the place where we decided you must draw a line,” Miller said. “The first 80,000 or 100,000 killed by [Bashar] Assad were kind of freebies? And then suddenly the world was going to mobilize?”
After the event, Miller spoke with the Journal about education and his goal to improve academic benchmarks to bring the United States in line with other advanced nations, most of which produce better results in their public education systems at lower per-pupil cost than the United States.
“We ought to be able to address these problems within the totals we are spending,” Miller said.
“If we are spending 17 percent of GDP, every other advanced nation on average is spending 9 percent, the next-highest country is 12 percent or 13 percent, we should say that over a 10-year period we should be able to be as cost effective as these other wealthy nations.”
Carr, who is most well-known for his positions on crime and public safety, touched on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Democrats’ signature health care law, as well as what he sees as burdensome tax and regulatory policies, and he addressed one of the elephants in the room — his running as a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic district.
Although Carr is widely considered a long shot in the race, his chances improve in the primary because of the number of Democrats competing against each other.
“I’m not here to please a particular party orthodoxy,” Carr said of his preference to amend, rather than repeal, the ACA, which puts him in a small minority among Republicans in the House of Representatives. “[But] I have a far higher chance of making a real impact on the issues we care about as a member of the majority.”