Dan Morain

Barbara Boxer ran, served and is leaving on her own terms

Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speaks to volunteers at a home serving as a canvassing site to train and organize supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Oct. 29 in Cincinnati.
Retiring Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speaks to volunteers at a home serving as a canvassing site to train and organize supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Oct. 29 in Cincinnati. The Associated Press

Sen. Barbara Boxer, her mementos and photos arriving in boxes from Washington, D.C., took a little time to reflect on the causes she championed, including the rights of women, workers, immigrants, minorities and gays. And, of course, the environment, the focus of her final fight, one she lost the other day.

“It is a struggle; that’s why they call it a struggle,” she said.

After 24 years in the U.S. Senate and 10 years in the House, Boxer’s tenure will end when Kamala Harris is sworn in to replace her on Tuesday. It’s a time bookended by gains and painful defeats, big and small, noticed and unseen. Some of her fights are all but forgotten because they have become such a part of the fabric of life.

Boxer is one of the last politicians who rose in the extraordinarily influential San Francisco-based political organization built by the late Rep. Phillip Burton and his brother, California Democratic Party Chairman John Burton. Like the others, Boxer has been an unabashed, unapologetic and proud liberal.

She won’t go down as one of history’s most influential senators, or one of its great orators or deepest thinkers. But she leaves as she arrived, a passionate fighter on the issues that matter to her. Unlike politicians who reflexively duck, bend and dodge, Boxer never hid who she was.

Upon arriving in the House in 1983, the Democrat from Marin County and San Francisco by way of the Bronx became one of the first members of Congress to insist that President Ronald Ronald fund AIDS research. By 2000, Boxer had teamed with a Republican senator to push a funding package of $255 million for an international effort to fight AIDS. It passed.

In 1987, then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein was working to make her city the home port for the USS Missouri. In Congress, Boxer worked to block funding for it. The battleship never arrived.

In 1990, Rep. Boxer joined other Democrats suing to prevent President George H.W. Bush from going to war in Iraq over Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait without congressional approval.

“Have you ever seen a body that is shot apart?” she said on the House floor in 1991. “From a distance, from very far away, it may look still and peaceful. But up close you see the violence, the pain, the suffering, the horror.”

A dozen years later, Sen. Boxer voted against President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq again. Later, she would go to the Senate floor and read the names of soldiers who died. It was, she said, among her most painful defeats. There were many others.

“Don’t even get me started on Merrick Garland,” Boxer said of President Barack Obama’s final Supreme Court nominee.

OK, but the Supreme Court is interwoven into Boxer’s career. In October 1991, the Senate was on the verge of confirming Clarence Thomas to the high court when NPR reported that a law professor from Oklahoma, Anita Hill, was alleging that Thomas, her former boss, had repeatedly and crudely sexually harassed her.

Boxer led seven women House members on a march to the U.S. Senate. Though they were barred from entering the chamber, Boxer and the others insisted the all-male Judiciary Committee investigate Hill’s allegation. It was a time when sexual harassment, if not accepted, was all too common and rarely discussed.

“It’s not whether the allegations are true or false, but the fact that the Senate, with 98 men out of 100 members, didn’t see this was a gut issue,” Boxer told political writer Jerry Roberts, then with the San Francisco Chronicle, at the time.

Despite Hill’s dramatic and detailed testimony, the Senate, then controlled by Democrats, confirmed Thomas 52-48. In a testament to those times, 11 Democrats voted for Thomas. In a sign of these times, Republicans, who control the Senate, refused to grant Garland so much as a hearing.

In 1992, when California was a swing state, Boxer won the Democratic primary to succeed Alan Cranston in the U.S. Senate. She might have lost in November, but for one of those bookends to her career.

Her Republican opponent, Bruce Herschensohn, was a smooth Los Angeles television commentator who would moralize about abortion rights, which, of course, Boxer supported.

As the election neared, Herschensohn made a stop in Chico. There, Bob Mulholland, then the California Democratic Party political director, waved photographs of a Hollywood strip joint and demanded to know why Herschensohn was “preaching religious values and family values and you go to places where women dance totally nude?”

Strip clubs seem tame in these coarse times. But the Mulholland hit helped sink Herschensohn. With Boxer’s victory, the number of women in the U.S. Senate increased to six from two. It was called the Year of the Woman.

We were supposed to have another Year of the Woman. As it happened, 2016 was the year when Donald Trump talked about Megyn Kelly’s bodily functions and Carly Fiorina’s face, and was revealed to have bragged about grabbing women’s crotches. None of it mattered.

“It was heartbreaking,” Boxer said, though she pointed out that Hillary Clinton was the first woman to become a major party presidential nominee and did get nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. “Those remarks did hurt him, for sure.” Quite a bookend.

Republicans always thought Boxer was vulnerable, and she might have been. But she won, repeatedly, in no small part because she never hid what she thought, and voters never doubted where she stood.

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