Sitting in his recently rented campaign office on West Third Street in Los Angeles one afternoon in late August, Rep. Henry Waxman listed — one by one, from memory — some of the coastal and South Bay neighborhoods and cities that are included in the newly redrawn 33rd Congressional District where he’s running for reelection in November.
“El Segundo, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach, Redondo Beach, part of Hawthorne — and then there’s the whole Palos Verdes Peninsula,” Waxman said.
Waxman is on unfamiliar ground this year, literally and figuratively. The district where he’s running stretches from Malibu all the way down the coast, incorporating a few inland neighborhoods along the way, including the chunk of the Westside where his campaign office sits. It’s a big change for Waxman, who used to represent a lot more of the Westside, including West Hollywood, Beverlywood and Pico-Robertson. By his count, 45 percent of the voters in the newly drawn 33rd District are people he’s never represented.
And this year, Waxman, the fifth-most senior Democrat in Congress and dean of the chamber’s Jewish members, who has won his last five elections with at least 65 percent of the vote, faces a challenger unlike any he’s faced before.
Bill Bloomfield, an independent, is a retired businessman who has never held public office and was, until relatively recently, a lifelong Republican.
At a time when Congress has an all-time-low 10 percent approval rating, Bloomfield’s reform-minded campaign slogan — “He’ll fix Congress” — should have at least some impact. Bloomfield spent more than $1 million in the run-up to the June primary, coming in second in a field of eight candidates, with about 24.6 percent of the vote. He said he’s willing “to spend what is necessary ... and not a dollar more” in order to get out his message of reform — a pledge that anyone with a mailbox in the district probably believes.
Waxman, meanwhile, spent about $200,000 leading up to the primary and took 45.3 percent of the vote in June. But even though he expects to be outspent in the race — as of June 30, he had just over $1 million in cash on hand — Waxman is confident that he can beat Bloomfield, especially since registered Democrats, who make up 44 percent of the district’s voters, outnumber both Republicans (29 percent) and independents (22 percent).
“I just have to make sure that he doesn’t outspend me so much that I don’t get my message out,” Waxman said.
Waxman’s message focuses on a legislative record that stretches back nearly four decades. Since he first began serving in Congress in 1975, Waxman, now the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, has passed legislation addressing the problems of air pollution, preserving safe drinking water and cracking down on the marketing of cigarettes aimed directly at minors, among other matters. He’s also been a staunch Israel supporter throughout that time.
Waxman is determined to continue serving in Congress, in part to pursue new legislation — he’d like to address climate change, perhaps by instituting a tax on carbon emissions — but also because House Republicans lately have made efforts to roll back existing laws protecting the environment.
“This past year, the Republicans in the House voted to repeal most of what’s in the Clean Air Act by trying to stop regulation of pollution in a number of different areas,” said Waxman, who was one of the primary authors of the reauthorized Clean Air Act in 1990, which for the first time addressed air toxins, acid rain and ozone depletion.
With Democrats controlling the Senate and the White House, Waxman said he knew such efforts would not succeed. “I worry a great deal what will happen in the next couple of years if we don’t have President Obama and have Republicans in control of the Congress,” he said.
Bloomfield, for his part, professed having great respect for Waxman and said he would never let his opponent’s signature piece of legislation be overturned.
“I like clean air,” Bloomfield said. “I like the fact that the Santa Monica Bay is cleaner than it was.”
Instead, Bloomfield is running a campaign that focuses less on replacing Waxman in particular and more on reforming Congress in general.
“I am not running because of how liberal he [Waxman] is, although he’s a lot more liberal than I am,” said Bloomfield, who is a co-founder of No Labels, a two-year-old nonpartisan organization that aims to reform Congress. “I’m running because of how partisan he is, because the institution is not working.”
Partisanship, for Bloomfield, is the problem in Washington — yet until recently, his own record of campaign donations appeared to be that of a devoted and generous adherent to the Republican Party.
Bloomfield spent a year working as an unpaid volunteer with Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid and has been a major contributor to Republican candidates.
In the two years leading up to the 2010 election, Bloomfield donated $140,000 to the California Republican Party, more than $50,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidates and another $39,000 to other Republicans seeking statewide office, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
He also donated at least $24,000 to individual Republican House and Senate candidates outside California and $30,400 to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
But in March 2011, Bloomfield switched his registration, becoming an independent. He said he didn’t know that he’d be running for Congress when he dropped out of the GOP (which he now calls “my former party”), and Bloomfield explained his decision to reregister as a reaction to the frustration with Congress’ “hyper-partisanship.”
“You’ve got people in congress who basically think that their job is to politick 24/7,” Bloomfield said. “The hyper-partisanship is causing the gridlock.”
In a video posted on his Web site, Bloomfield calls Waxman “10 times more partisan than the average Democrat.” But Waxman contends that he has worked across the aisle many times over his long career.
“I believe in compromise,” Waxman said. “Unfortunately, we have the extreme right wing in the Republican Party right now in control and everybody else in the Republican Party is so co-opted that they think compromise is a bad word and something that should be avoided at all costs.”
If Waxman blames Republicans for Congress’ dysfunction, Bloomfield assigns roughly equal measures of responsibility to both parties.
“It takes two to fight,” the former Republican said.
There’s a double irony to Bloomfield’s running as a reformer. Not only did Waxman himself get elected as part of a crop of reform-minded “Watergate babies” in the wake of Nixon’s resignation in 1974, but Bloomfield’s current bid is a direct result of two recent reforms to California elections he has backed financially.
He gave a combined $150,000 to support two ballot measures in 2010: One took control over drawing California’s congressional districts away from elected officials and handed it to an independent commission; the other established the “top-two” system of primary elections, in which all voters are given a ballot with every candidate on it, regardless of party.
Both passed, and as a result, the 33rd Congressional District, as drawn by the independent redistricting panel, is more competitive than Waxman’s former district, and the new so-called “jungle primary” system is far friendlier to independent candidates, especially those with deep pockets.
But if Bloomfield makes clear his aim is to reform Congress, it’s unclear how he’d vote on specific issues, should he manage to unseat Waxman.
During an hour-long interview with the Journal, Bloomfield avoided picking sides on a number of issues that have divided Congress over the last two years. On the fiscal front, Bloomfield praised the Bowles-Simpson debt-reduction commission, whose conclusions were rejected by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan and were not fully embraced by the Obama administration. He bemoaned the Democrats’ passing the Affordable Care Act without any Republican votes, but also assailed Republicans for wasting time passing legislation repealing Obamacare, knowing that such efforts wouldn’t move in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Asked what he would have done had he been a member when the health-care reform bill came up before the House, Bloomfield declined to say how he’d have voted, saying only that he wanted “to improve it.”
Bloomfield also declined to say who he’d be voting for in the presidential race this fall.
“The problem with answering that question is I get labeled,” said Bloomfield, who in early 2011 donated a combined $7,500 to Republican nominee Mitt Romney and a pro-Romney PAC. “I will support whoever the president is when I think he’s right, and I will be totally against him when I think he’s wrong.”
The growth in the numbers of “decline-to-state” voters and the shrinking number of Californians who are registered Republicans, coupled with the top-two primary, gives moderate Republicans like Bloomfield an incentive to run as independents.
“The party label ‘Republican’ in California — and especially in a district like Henry Waxman’s — is absolutely toxic,” said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles and a Jewish Journal columnist.
Bloomfield qualifies as a moderate Republican — he drives a Prius, believes that climate change is caused by human activity and voted against the ballot measure that outlawed same-sex marriage in California — and as such, he’s “much more threatening to a Democrat than conservative Republicans are,” Sonenshein said.
Still, Sonenshein added, “I’d be beyond shocked if Waxman lost.”
Waxman isn’t resting on his laurels. Waxman’s campaign manager recently held a conference call with leaders of about half a dozen synagogues around the South Bay, looking to plan ways for the congressman to reach out to the community. The South Bay could take on an outsized importance in this campaign, particularly as two candidate debates already scheduled will both take place in Palos Verdes.
In the parts of the 33rd District that are new to him, Waxman might have some ground to make up. Rabbi Yossi Mintz, the director of Chabad of the Beach Cities in Redondo Beach, said he’d received many Bloomfield campaign mailers in the recent months but hadn’t gotten anything or seen any signs pushing voters to choose Waxman.
Mintz said he’d met Bloomfield once, and that although he hadn’t yet met Waxman, Mintz said he knew the congressman’s reputation.
“I know about his support for Israel, which is very important to me,” Mintz said. “He’s a person that other people look up to on how to vote. That’s a very powerful thing.”
In August, with the election less than three months away, the Waxman campaign office didn’t yet have the lived-in feeling of Bloomfield’s larger, more well-worn headquarters in Manhattan Beach. A neat stack of “Waxman for Congress” signs sat in the entryway.
Waxman said he was working the phones that day, soliciting donations from supporters in a way he hadn’t done in years past.
“I’m calling people, telling them that I’ve never asked for their help in the past,” he said, “and this is a time when I really need it.”