Rep. Henry Waxman has been a mainstay of Congress dating back to his first elected term in 1975. He has led Democrats on issues like health care and climate change, and during the George W. Bush administration he was his party’s leading voice on congressional oversight, challenging the White House on a number of fronts.
But Waxman, 74, abruptly decided to retire at the end of this year, creating a leadership void for Democrats in Washington and his home district in Southern California. Seventeen candidates are on the ballot Tuesday in California’s 33rd district, and the top two finishers will square off in the general election this November.
Leading the pack are two mainstream Democrats, Wendy Greuel and Ted Lieu. But trailing closely behind them are no less than 15 other candidates hoping to replace what many in the race call a living legend.
Greuel told Yahoo News her top priority, if elected, would be to continue Waxman’s efforts to pass climate change legislation. “The person elected to Henry Waxman's seat must be as tenacious as he is on this issue,” she said.
The district is often cited as being the second wealthiest in the nation. Along with their financial power, the politically active residents in the district, which includes the affluent enclave of Beverly Hills, have become accustomed to the authority Waxman carries with him. There seems to be a consensus that voters here aren’t just electing a member of Congress but someone they expect to be a leader on the national stage.
Because of that heightened importance, Greuel and Lieu face several upstart challengers, including self-help author Marianne Williamson and former Clinton administration official Matt Miller, who both say a nontraditional candidate is needed to truly carry on Waxman’s legacy.
During a recent campaign stop, Miller worked the crowd with his shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal a temporary tattoo on his forearm. The “Mattoo” as he referred to it, carried an excerpt from his endorsement by the Los Angeles Times, a testament to his self-described wonky persona.
“I want to be the Paul Ryan for Democrats in Congress,” Miller told Yahoo News during an interview. “I may not agree with Ryan on most issues. But he has brought a passion for policy to his work that I’d like to see Democrats embrace once again.”
The subdued but articulate Miller pointed to his time working in President Clinton’s Office of Management and Budget as evidence of his ability to get things done, even suggesting that he could work with Ryan to cut government spending on health care without compromising progressive ideals.
Five miles and a world away, Marianne Williamson was co-headlining an event with Florida Rep. Alan Grayson inside a church in Venice, Calif. The outspoken Grayson, who recently compared members of the Tea Party to the Ku Klux Klan, said Williamson was the rare kind of politician who could change the tone in Washington.
“I’m here to be obnoxious on behalf of Marianne Williamson,” Grayson said to laughter and applause.
“The last thing a progressive message should be is spineless,” added Williamson, who is running as an independent.
The excited crowd was packed with a vintage mix of Venice personalities; one woman performed yoga poses while Williamson spoke, and there were close to a dozen dogs and even one “service cat” in attendance. But there was gravitas on display as well, including in remarks by Roger Wolfson, a former legal counsel for the late senators Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone, who described Williamson as a “once in a generation” figure.
Williamson is probably the most famous figure in the race, having sold more than 3 million books, several of which have been New York Times best-sellers. Her Twitter following dwarfs those of all her competitors, but she says many of her biggest fans don’t realize she’s running. “If one quarter of the people who buy my books voted for me, they say I’d win in a landslide,” she told the crowd.
For his part, Waxman has refused to endorse anyone in the primary and has said he may not even endorse anyone in the general election, which will almost certainly come down to two Democrats.
In fact, getting Waxman to say anything nice about the candidates running to replace him has been a challenge. He’s been dismissive of Williamson, who announced her bid before Waxman announced his own retirement plans.
For its part, the Lieu campaign fronts its website with a positive quote from Waxman, a rare prize in this primary.
“We had to get permission from Waxman to run that quote,” Lieu, a state senator, was quick to note in a recent phone interview with Yahoo News.
Lieu has been offering himself up as the serious candidate in the race, touting endorsements from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and from the state Democratic Party.
“I’m the only candidate in this race with a record. I’ve passed numerous pieces of legislation signed by both Democratic and Republican governors,” he said. “I don’t think the voters are likely to come out in huge majorities for an unknown.”
Most internal polling suggests Lieu is right, pointing to a general election matchup between him and Greuel.
Still, the primary vote on Tuesday remains shrouded in mystery. Turnout is expected to be a dismal 20 percent, yet half a dozen of the candidates are estimated to have raised $1 million or more, meaning that no one really knows how the election will go.
And, in theory, if one of the dark-horse candidates like Miller or Williamson qualifies for the general election, that person would have a very real chance of pulling off an upset victory.
“I respect their public service,” Miller said of Greuel and Lieu. “If voters think what we need is someone who came out of Sacramento or City Hall, they’ve got that choice. We know the bumper-sticker words,” he added. “I want to put more flesh on those.”
Yet for all their differences, there has been at least one unifying theme from the major candidates, an effort to let the country know that their district is much more than the Beverly Hills stereotype portrayed in some recent national profiles.
“The characterization of being a ‘microcosm of Beverly Hills’ causes many to overlook the poverty and struggles of many of our own neighbors,” Greuel said. “I’m a strong believer in the idea that one’s ZIP code should never determine his or her opportunities in life.”
Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer)