Jan. 8, 2015
WASHINGTON — From leading the famous charge of female House members up the Senate steps during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas to banging a frozen chicken on her Senate desk to denounce labeling frozen fowl as fresh, Barbara Boxer has been, in her words, a fighter.
To her critics, “fighter” was a nice way of saying the California Democrat was a partisan prone to grandstanding. Over more than two decades, her aggressive tactics led to a Senate record of achievement few thought possible when the former Marin County supervisor and congresswoman won a surprise victory to what many predicted would be her only term.
On Thursday, the 74-year-old Boxer said her fourth term will be her last and that she won’t run for re-election in 2016.
Barbara Boxer campaigns for the U.S. Senate at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton in 1992. Frederic Larson / The Chronicle
Boxer revealed the news in a YouTube video in which she was interviewed by her 19-year-old grandson, Zachary Rodham, who addressed her as “Grandma.” Later, in a more traditional conference call with reporters, Boxer said she would remain active in issues and politics.
“I just want to work from California, the place I love,” Boxer said. She said she also wanted to give potential candidates time to prepare for a run for her seat.
Speculation about Boxer’s future had been building since fall, first when it became apparent she wasn’t raising money for a 2016 campaign and then when Republicans won control of the Senate, costing Boxer her chairmanship of the Environment and Public Works Committee.
Boxer had used the job to push for climate-change legislation and other environmental causes.
“Barbara Boxer has always been the senator who was almost so fearless in her determination she was almost reckless,” said longtime Democratic operator Hilary Rosen. “She would do anything to make her point, and I think her willingness to take those risks gave a lot of other people backbone.”
Many politicians are inclined to “step back and see where the chips are falling,” Rosen said. “Barbara was never that person. She went with her gut, and she went early.”
One person was taken by surprise by her decision not to run again: House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, a close friend.
“It’s funny, she called me, and she said she wanted to talk to me personally,” Pelosi said when reporters broke the news to her. “I thought maybe she wanted to have dinner tonight or something. Oh my.”
Boxer first won election to the Senate in 1992, the Year of the Woman, on the same day Dianne Feinstein won the state’s other Senate seat. Because Feinstein was elected to fill out the term of former Sen. Pete Wilson, Boxer has always been California’s junior senator.
Stanford University political scientist Bruce Cain said Boxer “did better than people expected,” given her reputation as an ideologue. “The reality was she was much shrewder than people gave her credit for,” he said.
Blocking the GOP
Boxer’s career rise took her from Wall Street to newspaper reporter to Marin supervisor to five terms in the House of Representatives to the top ranks of the Senate. Her retirement will cost California the power and accumulated knowledge of her seniority, which she often wielded behind the scenes to block Republican legislation coming from the House on the environment, abortion rights and other social issues.
She leaves a long legislative record, including shepherding major water, highway and other spending bills that came under her committee jurisdiction, public lands bills that have protected more than a million acres of wilderness in California, and spearheading many consumer safety bills.
Boxer took great pride in championing women’s issues, writing a book about her 1991 challenge to the Senate during the Thomas confirmation hearings, when she insisted that the all-male Judiciary Committee take seriously the sexual harassment allegations against Thomas made by Anita Hill.
Boxer was the first voice — and a lonely one in the clubby Senate — to oppose then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., when allegations of sexual harassment surfaced against him in the 1990s, leading ultimately to his resignation.
After Feinstein gave Condoleezza Rice a glowing introduction at her Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of state in January 2005, Boxer all but accused Rice in the same hearing of lying about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.
Boxer said Thursday that her three biggest regrets in her Senate career were not doing more to stop the war in Iraq, which she voted against, not getting a climate change bill enacted over a Republican filibuster, and voting against the confirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who she said “helped save the economy” after the 2008 crash.
The 81-year-old Feinstein, whose term expires in 2018 and whose future has also been the subject of speculation, said in a statement, “I always knew I had a partner in Barbara. I can’t thank her enough for being such a resilient collaborator. We blazed many trails together.”
Working with Republicans
Although she is a staunch liberal, Boxer often teamed with Republicans on legislation. Sen. James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who replaces her as chairman of the environment committee and has been her archfoe on climate change, said that while they “differ on most issues, we share a deep and mutual respect that has paved the way for true bipartisan efforts in passing vital infrastructure legislation.”
Boxer insisted on not calling her decision a retirement, saying, “I am never going to retire. The work is too important.” She dismissed “fighting in the Senate” as a reason for leaving, saying some issues are “a fight worth making.” And she said her age was not a factor.
“Some people are old at 40, and some people are young at 80,” she said. “As for me, I feel as young as I did when I got elected.”
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