Updated: Jan 4
Dec. 7, 2016
WASHINGTON — California Sen. Barbara Boxer held back tears as she delivered her formal farewell to the Senate on Wednesday, capping a four-decade political career as a liberal fighter that began in 1972 on the Marin County Board of Supervisors.
With the surprising exception of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, her California colleague of 24 years, Boxer was joined in the Senate chamber by numerous allies and onetime foes from both parties, along with members of her family, all gathered to wish her well. Boxer reserved a special hug for her longtime friend, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who arrived with a dozen House colleagues to hear her send-off.
Feinstein’s absence was glaring because she and Boxer were voted to the Senate together in 1992, symbols of the “Year of the Woman” when they and other women made big inroads into the male-dominated institution. The two have steered clear of disputes during their time in the Senate and put up a united front on state issues.
Chatting with reporters afterward, Boxer brushed off Feinstein’s nonappearance. She said Feinstein had attended a tribute to her the night before and had “no idea” why she was a no-show Wednesday.
Feinstein’s office said that the Senate’s “very full schedule” prevented her from attending but that she would later insert her remarks in the record.
This image provided by C-SPAN2 shows Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. giving her farewell speech on the Senate floor on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016, after 24 years in the Senate. Associated Press
On Monday, the two had a rare public rift after Feinstein blindsided Boxer by teaming with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, to insert a rider into a major water infrastructure bill that Boxer co-authored. Boxer denounced the rider as an assault on the Endangered Species Act because its objective is to loosen pumping restrictions on California rivers as a way to send more water to farmers in the San Joaquin Valley. Feinstein’s incursion into Boxer’s legislative turf forced Boxer into opposition to her own bill.
At Wednesday’s going-away event, Boxer thanked her husband of 55 years, Stewart Boxer, for providing her “the best political name ever.” She commemorated her victories and acknowledged her defeats on the environment, women’s rights, and worker and consumer issues, and called the Senate a “sacred place” that allowed her to fulfill her dream of championing the progressive issues dear to her and her adopted state.
Sen. James Inhofe, an outspoken climate-change denier repeatedly swapped the chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee with Boxer, and the two became good friends, despite wide ideological differences. On Wednesday, the Oklahoma Republican said that he could always count on Boxer to tell him where she stood and that this clarity allowed the pair to build rare bipartisan achievements on transportation and water infrastructure. Just this year, the two worked together to craft a landmark rewriting of federal law on toxins that for the first time will begin removing dangerous substances from thousands of household products.
Boxer also received a personal tribute from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican with whom she did not speak for 20 years over Boxer’s initially lonely but ultimately successful crusade to drive Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon from office over sexual harassment charges. Boxer and McConnell later buried the hatchet and worked on legislation together.
“I think (McConnell) was here just to make sure I was leaving,” Boxer joked.
Boxer is a Brooklyn native who marveled at California’s beauty when she arrived in San Francisco in 1965. In retirement, she said she would work on bridging the partisan divide on the environment, noting that Republican Richard Nixon, who once held her Senate seat, created the Environmental Protection Agency as president and signed the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act.
She also said she would promote a political action committee she has established to counter the political influence of Charles and David Koch, the coal industrialists who have applied their vast fortune to fighting efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Boxer achieved national recognition in 1991, when she was a House member from Marin County, by leading a posse of female House members up the Senate steps to protest the lack of hearings by the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee on law Professor Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, whose nomination to the Supreme Court was then before the male-dominated Senate.
She said she never would have been elected to the Senate without Hill. A long shot for the seat in 1991, Boxer prevailed in a razor-thin contest in 1992 against Republican candidate Bruce Herschensohn. Her toughest race after that came in her last election in 2010 against former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina, a Republican presidential candidate this year whom she beat soundly.
Boxer also thanked the absent Feinstein for helping her reach the Senate when few thought she could. Feinstein “stood by my side, even though it could have cost her votes,” Boxer said. “And I will never, ever forget that. Thank you, Dianne.”
Her biggest regret, she said, was her inability to stop the Iraq War. She said she leaves with a “broken heart” over Democrat Hillary Clinton’s loss in November to Republican Donald Trump. Boxer’s grandson Zachary is Clinton’s nephew, through the marriage of Clinton’s brother Tony Rodham to Boxer’s daughter Nicole. The couple divorced in 2001.
Boxer said her message to Clinton supporters is, “The work goes on.”
“Yes, you build on success but you learn from failure, but you never stop working for human rights, civil rights, women’s rights, voting rights, children’s rights and the environment. I certainly don’t plan to stop,” she said. “I am not only fortunate to have this extraordinary career, but I’m also so fortunate to be going home to a state that stands for everything I believe in.”
Boxer choked back tears when she wrapped up her speech, quoting a letter written in longhand by jazz musician Sonny Rollins, whom she met only once. Rollins wrote to her, “Greetings. So, so sorry that we are not going to have you for us anymore,” adding that Boxer had “made life beautiful for so many citizens.”
But she has made it clear that she is not through yet.
Boxer has vowed to keep the Senate in session until Christmas if necessary over Feinstein’s water rider by filibustering her own Water Resources Development Act reauthorization bill along with every piece of legislation in the current lame-duck session. Boxer said Wednesday that the vote to sustain her filibuster on the larger water bill will be “very close.” But Inhofe predicted the bill would pass because it contains projects in every state, including a fix for the municipal lead poisoning in Flint, Mich.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Tuesday that the administration objects to the Feinstein/McCarthy rider but did not threaten a veto of the larger bill.
Boxer’s seat will be filled in January by Kamala Harris. Boxer is donating her records to UC Berkeley.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead