WASHINGTON — Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, a congressional force on clean air and expansion of Medicaid during his 20 terms, has decided to retire.
In a statement Thursday, the California lawmaker who has represented Santa Monica and the Westside for 40 years, said he would not seek another term.
“It’s been a privilege to represent the (city) of Santa Monica and work with the residents to fulfill the promise of building a more vibrant, livable city,” he said in a statement to the Daily Press. “I’ve taken great pleasure in working with residents to find solutions to community challenges and address homelessness, transportation and infrastructure needs, groundwater contamination, air pollution, and the problems posed by Santa Monica Airport.”
Elected in 1974, he is one of the last of the post-Watergate class.
In reflecting on his decades of service in the House, Waxman, 74, said he was filled with gratitude for the memories.
“I am grateful for the support of my constituents, who have entrusted me to represent them and encouraged me to become a leader on national and international issues,” Waxman said. “I am grateful for my supporters and allies, who have worked side-by-side with me to fight for issues we care about: health, environmental protection, women’s and gay rights, and strengthening the ties between the United States and our most important ally, the State of Israel.
“I am grateful for the friendship of my colleagues in Congress on both sides of the aisle,” he added. “And I am honored that I served under the leadership of my friend, Nancy Pelosi, the first female leader and speaker of the House.”
Waxman pushed for investigations into the tobacco industry and was instrumental in getting President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul completed.
The president lauded Waxman’s public service in a statement.
“Early in the 20th century, Henry Waxman’s grandparents came to America, the land of opportunity, and found a place where they could build a better life for themselves and their families,” he said. “Over the course of 40 years in Congress, their grandson has fought to give every American family that same chance.”
Santa Monica Mayor Pam O’Connor said that Waxman always opens his door to her when she visits Washington DC.
“It wasn’t always front page headline kinds of things,” she said. “But these were issues that were very important to Santa Monica and the region.”
Waxman’s fight for better air quality, she said, was instrumental in helping Santa Monica earn its reputation as a world-class active, outdoor city.
Santa Monicans will remember Waxman for the recent pressure he has put on the Federal Aviation Administration to strengthen safety measures at Santa Monica Airport and for his opposition to the closure of the historic post office on Fifth Street.
Never one to forget his constituents, Waxman stood on the side of residents when they complained about not receiving their mail, some telling stories about college acceptance letters getting lost.
Sheila Kuehl, founding director of the Public Policy Institute at Santa Monica College, called Waxman’s retirement a “huge loss to the district.” His experience gives him power that will be hard to replace, she said.
“A lot of us that were elected in the state relied on him to carry the water at the federal level,” said Kuehl, who served as a state senator until 2008. “I always knew I could go to his office on days when he was home and have a thoughtful conversation.”
Former Santa Monica mayor, Assemblymember Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica) called the congressman a mentor and friend.
“He is compassionate, relentless, and honest,” he said. “He leaves an enormous void in an environment in need of leadership.”
Waxman wrote several letters to the FAA about the airport. He asked them to meet with Santa Monica residents. He called for investigations into the air-quality in the neighborhoods around the airport.
“Henry committed to backing his constituents with regard to the airport recently,” said Marty Rubin, founder of Concerned Residents Against Airport Pollution. “He didn’t say point blank that he was going to work toward closure but he didn’t back off.”
Still, Rubin would like to have seen more action.
“He always said the right thing,” he said. “I felt that as critical as the issue is for health and safety he could have fought harder.”
Waxman has also pushed to protect federal land at the Westwood Veterans hospital from being sold off or leased to private companies, and instead have it used for housing and treatment of homeless veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and addiction.
Bob Rosebrock, an advocate for veterans, said Waxman was on the wrong side of veterans issues until recently.
“To his credit, he answered to his constituents which were very wealthy in the area,” he said. “But the constituents were wrong. He disregarded the VA and allowed it to run totally into the toilet.”
In an interview with the Daily Press in 2012 when he last ran for reelection, Waxman lamented what he called obstructionist Tea Party Republicans stalling progress in Washington.
The frustration is felt on both sides. More than 30 House members have announced they will retire, resign or run for other offices this year, including stalwarts like George Miller, Democrat of California; Tom Latham, Republican of Iowa; Frank R. Wolf, Republican of Virginia; and Howard P. McKeon of California, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, according to a list compiled by the New York Times.
“There are elements of Congress today that I do not like,” Waxman said. “I abhor the extremism of the Tea Party Republicans. I am embarrassed that the greatest legislative body in the world too often operates in a partisan intellectual vacuum, denying science, refusing to listen to experts, and ignoring facts.
“But I am not leaving out of frustration with Congress. Even in today’s environment, there are opportunities to make real progress.”
Recently Waxman has been pushing for more action to address climate change. Last Congress he helped form a Safe Climate Caucus to build public support for legislation that addresses global warming.
Outside of Southern California, Waxman may be best known for leading the investigation into steroid use in professional baseball, prompting reforms that he says cut steroid use by teens in half and pushed all sports leagues to strengthen their drug policies.
Waxman represents the 33rd Congressional District, one of the nation’s wealthiest, which includes the coastal communities of Santa Monica, Malibu and Rancho Palos Verdes, as well as Beverly Hills.
With Waxman retiring, it appears that New-Age guru and author Marianne Williamson is the front-runner to succeed him, as well as former Los Angeles City Councilwoman and City Controller Wendy Greuel, who recently lost her bid to become mayor of Los Angeles.
But speculation is running wild about other people who might jump into the race.
Wealthy independent Bill Bloomfield told the Daily Press he was giving it “serious consideration, leaning toward running.”
A multimillionaire, Bloomfield came within eight points of unseating Waxman in 2012 thanks to spending $7.5 million of his own money and his message of fighting against partisan gridlock.
“I’ll be watching closely,” he said. “But today is his day.”
State Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Santa Monica) called Waxman a legend and said in a statement that he was “seriously looking” at giving it shot.
“Today and for decades to come we will honor Congressmember Waxman,” he said. “[Friday] I will make a formal announcement regarding my intentions.”
Rubin said that Lieu would be his top choice given the attention the state senator has paid to the airport.
Bloom announced on his Facebook page that he is considering running for the seat.
O’Connor said Bloom would be her top choice to fill the position.
Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education member Ben Allen told the Daily Press the seat would be of interest to him.
With both Bloom and Lieu showing interest their seats too could soon be up for grabs.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.