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What Makes Henry Tick? : Private, Persistent and Powerful, Rep. Waxman Was Networking Long Before the Strategy Became Chic


In a 1968 article about that campaign, Prelutsky, then a Los Angeles Times columnist, poked fun at his friend. He also described a young candidate's political baptism on the streets of Beverly-Fairfax.

During one encounter, for example, Waxman handed a piece of campaign literature to an elderly woman who took a look at his photo, then a look at him, and pointedly observed, "A very complimentary picture."

Waxman trounced McMillan with 64% of the vote and moved to Sacramento. Shortly thereafter, he married the former Janet Kessler, who had a daughter, Carol, from a previous marriage. The couple later had a second child, Michael.

Molded by his own experiences, Waxman became a leading advocate for the elderly and an expert on health care issues. In time, he helped Berman get elected to the assembly from another district, and the machine was born.

Democratic state leaders recognized Waxman's shrewd political instincts and made him chairman of a panel charged with drawing up new district lines for the 1970 census. Later, he became chairman of the assembly Health Committee and helped pass legislation creating standards for health maintenance organizations in California. He took a keen interest in federal health issues and in 1974 won election to a new, court-ordered U.S. congressional district.

"I arrived in Washington as part of a new class of freshmen who wanted a more activist government," Waxman says. "We were determined to reform this institution . . . not to have power in the hands of a few old-timers."

The young congressman raised eyebrows five years later when he beat out a colleague with more seniority for the chairmanship of the health and environment subcommittee. Waxman says he won the coveted post by lobbying committee members for support, but it didn't hurt that he also gave money to their reelection campaigns. It was the first time such hardball tactics had been used to win a House subcommittee post.

"People were appalled," says Larry Sabato, a congressional observer and a professor of government at the University of Virginia. "He received a lot of criticism but now it's standard operating procedure. It showed and demonstrated his innovativeness."

Since then, Waxman has blended strong liberal views with an insider's appreciation of how the game is played on Capitol Hill. No longer the young Turk, he now says it is unhealthy for House members to mount freewheeling challenges to the House seniority system.

During the last 10 years, Waxman has blasted the automobile and oil lobbies backing Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the powerful chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. Yet, on several occasions, he has also allied himself with special interest groups.

Last year, it was learned that he and other California congressmen urged the Securities and Exchange Commission to drop a requirement forcing Drexel Burnham Lambert Inc. to move its high-yield junk bond office from Beverly Hills to the firm's New York headquarters. Earlier, he had received a $5,000 honorarium from the company, which is liquidating.

Waxman says he was concerned about the economic loss to Southern California and in no way endorsed the company's now-controversial business dealings. The congressman also notes that he gave the $5,000 check to charity, because he had by then exceeded the annual congressional limit for such gifts.

On other issues, however, Waxman's advocacy has been clear-cut.

Long before Congress became aware of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, he was holding hearings in Los Angeles and other cities to focus attention on the disease. Last year, he engineered passage of the first comprehensive AIDS bill, which contained millions of dollars for education, treatment and testing.

Asked why, Waxman speculates that his Jewish background and the memory of his family's oppression may have fueled the fire. He and his staff have spent hours counseling AIDS advocates about the often byzantine process by which Congress allocates money.

"We needed him to show us the ropes," says Jeff Levi, formerly executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. "Henry has a visceral understanding of the concerns of an oppressed minority."

He also represents a district with a large number of gays, and Waxman insists that he has the same duty to advance their interests as would a Midwestern congressman representing steel or auto workers.

In March, during a health and environment subcommittee hearing, Dannemeyer tried to scuttle a Waxman proposal extending anti-discrimination protections to people with AIDS. He suggested that many of these individuals brought the disease on themselves and did not deserve special treatment.

The normally calm Waxman grabbed a microphone and snapped that anyone making such an argument was speaking like a "supreme being." As the packed hearing room erupted in applause, he concluded angrily: "I don't see any supreme beings on this committee."

The next day, Washington insiders were still clucking over the exchange. But Waxman had moved on to other issues. He spoke before the National Commission on AIDS about expanding the availability of AZT and other early intervention drugs. He also outlined plans to provide better care for the 37 million Americans who have no health insurance.

It may be years before any of these measures become law, but to Waxman that's familiar terrain. For him, the legislative process is one step at a time. You judge the odds, decide who's on your side and wait to see what happens.

Does that sound like a certain card game? Waxman flashes a surprised smile.

"You mean hearts? Well, I guess I used to play that game a lot. I used to enjoy it. But these days, you know, I don't have time for cards anymore."

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