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California Gold Rush: The Race for the Hottest Job in Congress

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Posted on May 26, 2014

By Bill Boyarsky

LehaKoK / Shutterstock.com

Reporting on campaign events this year, I’ve been struck by the political system’s indifference to the greed of the 1 percent, income inequality and government spying.

It’s sharply at odds with the anger visible in the Occupy movement and with the sense of economic injustice evident in the meetings of blue-collar workers I’ve attended. The political process is divorced from reality.

One congressional race in particular illustrates the point. It’s for the seat representing the 33rd Congressional District, which occupies a portion of Southern California reaching from the San Fernando Valley suburbs through the wealth of Beverly Hills and Malibu to Santa Monica and Venice and middle- and working-class suburbs south of Los Angeles. Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman has been the representative for almost 40 years and now is retiring.

The Democratic 33rd has a per capita income of $61,273. With so many rich people, many of them political activists or dabblers, the district is a political fundraising treasure chest, and the winner of this election will have influence with donors.

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It’s noteworthy that this wealth has been represented by Waxman, a man whose demeanor is anti-Hollywood glitz. In fact, he exemplifies what government can do for poor, powerless Americans.

From the beginning of Waxman’s career, he has fought for those who needed a break in education and protection against pollution, tobacco, overpriced drugs and bad medical care.

Rather than shouting on cable television news, he has shown his fury at injustice through influential legislation when the Democrats were in power and with muckraking investigations that turn up real evils.

Looking for a new Henry Waxman, I hit the 33rd Congressional District campaign trail. Sadly, I couldn’t find anyone with Waxman’s vision among the 17 candidates for the June 3 primary election.

Sorting them out is like shopping at Costco. So I chose a few Democrats who seem to have the best chance; a Republican, Elan Carr, who has surprising potential; and Marianne Williamson, an independent who is certainly the most intriguing candidate. Under California’s primary system, the top two finishers will compete in a November runoff whether they are Democrats, Republicans or independents.

Only once did I get a sense of outrage. On a recent Monday night I drove to the Saban Theatre, a lushly restored former movie palace in Beverly Hills, to hear Williamson, who is well known as a spiritual adviser, author and inspirational speaker. People outside California might find it unusual that anyone could make a lot of money doing that, but here it’s part of life.

While Williamson is an independent, she said that if elected, she would caucus with House Democrats.

The theater was packed with an audience ranging from the young to the middle aged. It was a contrast to the older folks I encounter among the usual sparse audiences at political meetings.

Williamson spoke in a rich clear voice, her sentences simple but powerful. The audience listened intently.

“Martin Luther King said we aren’t living up to our creed,” she said. “What is our creed? Our creed is that all men are created equal. Our creed is that there should be equal opportunity in this country. Our creed is that all men should be equal before the law. ... No man would be above any other man. It wouldn’t just mean all men; it would mean all men and all women. It wouldn’t mean just white men, it would mean black men and black women. It doesn’t just mean straight men, it means gay men and women.”

I thought of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was an evangelist who found her way to Los Angeles in the 1920s. As a spiritual adviser and inspirational speaker of the day, she began drawing thousands to large halls and churches and finally to her own Angelus Temple. She, like Williamson, spoke simply and clearly. As an immigrant from Canada herself, she understood how restless Southern Californians, in particular, were ready for her straightforward message. A biographer, Nancy Barr Mavity, wrote of the Los Angeles of Sister Aimee’s time, “No other large city contains so many transplanted villagers who retain the stamp of their indigenous soil.”

Williamson, like McPherson, is a migrant. She is Texas born and a college dropout. Reporter Terry Pristin wrote of her in a 1992 profile that “she roamed around the country, leading a dissolute life as a singer, cocktail waitress, office temp and bookseller and getting involved in a series of unhappy relationships.”

That history meshed with Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California, still a place of immigrants and children of immigrants, with the fears and insecurities such a status brings with it. These people embrace leaders who preach populism and protest. Like the region’s earthquakes, protests unexpectedly emerge with a bang. Some of them come from the right, notably those that produced anti-tax Proposition 13. Others are from the left, such as the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the Free Speech Movement. Protests have come from the old with the Depression-era pension movement; from the docks led by Harry Bridges’ longshoremen’s union; and from Central Valley by farmworkers under Cesar Chavez’s banner.


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