California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer’s departure from the Senate in 2016, announced Thursday, will conclude a 33-year congressional career defined by liberal causes and a buoyantly combative spirit.
Repeatedly successful in winning election, even as she has struggled to pass legislation, Boxer now has two more years to make her stand in a conservative-controlled Senate while a younger California political generation scrambles to replace her.
“I want to come home,” Boxer said Thursday in video announcing a decision that she insisted should not be called a retirement. “I want to come home to the state that I love so much, California.”
The campaign arena could quickly fill with potential replacements, with Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Attorney General Kamala Harris and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa seen as possible Democratic contenders. Among Republicans, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have gained early mention, among others.
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Boxer said in an afternoon conference call with reporters that it was premature for her to back any specific candidate, though she underscored her hopes for a progressive replacement. She said she announced her departure this early in the 2016 election cycle because “it’s only fair” to give candidates enough time to make their case.
President Barack Obama, who served alongside Boxer during his four years in the Senate, called his former colleague Thursday. In a statement, he described her as an institution.
“Thanks to Barbara,” Obama said, “more Americans breathe clean air and drink clean water. More women have access to health care. More children have safe places to go after school. More public lands have been protected for future generations. More Americans travel on safe roads and bridges. And more young women have been inspired to achieve their biggest dreams, having Barbara as an incredible role model.”
Starting her own congressional career in the House of Representatives in 1983, where she represented left-leaning Marin County, Boxer moved to the Senate in 1993.
On both sides of Capitol Hill, the 4-foot-11 Brooklyn native distinguished herself with feisty rhetoric, an unwavering commitment to women’s and environmental causes and a steady climb up the seniority ladder that eventually made her the first female chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
“A consistent and principled liberal, more loved by the base of the party than (California Sen. Dianne) Feinstein, she was less able to make the pragmatic compromises that incremental progress requires,” noted Bruce Cain, a Stanford University political scientist. “Some admired her for that, while others did not.”
Boxer’s career also embodied broader changes in Congress itself.
In 1983, her first year on Capitol Hill, the House had 22 female members. This Congress, it has 88. When she announced her initial Senate candidacy in 1990, for a seat up for election in 1992, the Senate had only two women. Boxer was among several women who ran and won seats in that campaign, dubbed the “Year of the Woman.”
The Senate now has 20 women: 14 Democrats and six Republicans.
Now 74, and with four terms under the Capitol dome, Boxer is still counted as California’s junior senator behind Feinstein.
But Boxer’s paltry campaign treasury with a re-election year looming had already prompted widespread speculation about her future plans. With only $148,777 in the bank as of Sept. 30, she was not building the usual foundation for another bid.
In her last Senate race, a 2010 romp over Republican Carly Fiorina, a former Hewlett-Packard CEO, Boxer spent more than $29 million.
While her decision was not unexpected, the timing caught even some of her allies by surprise. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, also a Californian, was palpably stunned when reporters asked at the end of a routine news conference late Thursday morning for her reaction.
“What?” Pelosi exclaimed. “She called me and said she wanted to talk to me personally. I thought maybe she wanted to have dinner or something!”
Emotional and almost tearful, Pelosi said Boxer’s departure from the Senate would be “a great loss to the people of California and the United States.” Pelosi was later able to reach Boxer, who also spoke on the phone Thursday with former President Bill Clinton, among others. Boxer gave Feinstein a heads-up shortly before the announcement was made public after 11 a.m.
“I always knew I had a partner in Barbara,” Feinstein said. “She is never one to shy away from any challenge, and I can’t thank her enough for being such a resilient collaborator.”
Throughout their years of serving together, Boxer and Feinstein have managed to largely avoid the public tensions that afflict some same-state senatorial relationships. In part, they have occupied different spaces in the Capitol Hill environment: Feinstein as the backroom dealmaker, as in her recent work on a California water bill, and Boxer as the public voice for her causes.
“Her legacy is largely defined by confrontation, and a lot of showdowns,” said Bill Whalen, a former staffer for one-time Republican Sen. Pete Wilson of California and now a fellow at the Hoover Institution. “Boxer is someone who genuinely cracked the glass ceiling.”
Her Democratic colleague, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, summed her up even more vividly, calling Boxer “one of the most vigorous tigresses to represent her constituents.”
A former stockbroker, she got involved in politics initially as a volunteer for Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent Democratic presidential campaign during the tumultuous 1968 election. She went to become a Marin County supervisor.
Boxer staked out her political priorities with her first Senate campaign declaration in November 1990, when she was competing in a crowded field of Democrats seeking to replace the retiring Sen. Alan Cranston.
“I will be running based on issues of the environment, a world of peace, economic prosperity, individual freedom of choice and freedom of the arts,” Boxer said at the time.
Since securing that Democratic nomination and then beat TV talk show commentator Bruce Herschensohn, a flawed Republican candidate, in the 1992 general election, she has handily dispatched subsequent GOP challengers, thanks to large vote margins in Northern California and Los Angeles. Much of the state’s rural Central Valley has remained beyond her political reach.
Throughout, Boxer has stuck to the principles she enunciated in her first campaign, voting against the authorizations of war in the Middle East and earning 100 percent vote ratings in 2013 from NARAL Pro-Choice America and the League of Conservation Voters.
“The fight is worth making,” Boxer said, citing her formative days at Brooklyn’s Public School 161. “I’m a fighter.”
Cain, the Stanford political scientist, said Boxer “exceeded expectations, but in the end she was always better as a critic of Republican policies than a forger of agreement and policy.” Boxer, for instance, helped block drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge but could not overcome a Republican filibuster of an anti-pollution cap-and-trade bill.
“We got a majority for it, but we couldn’t get a supermajority,” Boxer said. “That broke my heart.”
Boxer said she also wished she had done more to stop the war in Iraq.
Still, she successfully negotiated with Republicans over a $12.3 billion water resources development bill, signed by Obama last summer. Boxer had to make concessions in the bill, including some that upset her traditional supporters, but in doing so she also secured support for California projects like Sacramento-area flood control.
“You had bipartisan negotiators,” Obama said at the bill signing, citing Boxer by name. “They set aside politics (and) focused on what was important to the country.”
Boxer cited other legislative successes, as well, but said she made the final decision to step away from Congress during family discussions over the holidays. The thought had been gnawing away at her for a while. She noted Thursday how she would “breathe the air, and think, oh my God, I’m home,” when arriving in California from Washington.
“It’s been quite an amazing and unexpected career that I’ve had,” Boxer said.
Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.
Barbara Boxer life, career highlights
1940: Born Barbara Levy in Brooklyn, N.Y.
1962: Graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Brooklyn College. Married Stewart Boxer.
1962-65: Worked as a stockbroker.
1965: The Boxers move to San Francisco.
1972: In her first election, Boxer ran unsuccessfully for a spot on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
1972-74: Worked as a journalist at the Pacific Sun.
1974-76: Worked as an aide to Rep. John Burton.
1976: Elected to the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
1982: Ran successfully for John Burton’s seat in U.S. House. Re-elected four times.
1992: Ran successfully for Alan Cranston’s seat in the U.S. Senate.
1994: Boxer’s daughter Nicole married Tony Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother.
2010: Re-elected for a fourth term as U.S. Senator.
2015: Announced she will not seek a fifth term as senator.