Rep. Henry Waxman, center, mingles with guests after speaking to the Palos… (Christina House, For The…)
One candidate is a prominent Beverly Hills Democrat, a veteran of more than three decades in Congress. The other is a wealthy Manhattan Beach businessman, a first-time contender who ditched the Republican Party to become independent.
One has the president's endorsement; the other, a former L.A. mayor's. It's Rep. Henry A. Waxman vs. Bill Bloomfield, battling in a newly drawn congressional district that has brought the officeholder his first real contest since 1975. They're already warring in TV ads and voters' mailboxes, something Waxman's constituents haven't seen in a long time.
"I expect to win, but nobody should take this for granted," Waxman said recently at an overflow meeting of the Palos Verdes Peninsula Democratic Club. He framed the fall elections as the crucible for "a basic vision for the future" of the country.
Bloomfield offers a similar take: "I'm running because I'm very concerned about the country we're going to leave our children and grandchildren," he told a Republican group not long ago.
The matchup is less a test of political extremes — Bloomfield is a moderate on some issues — than of new election rules in California at a time when voters are sour on politicians and increasingly register without party membership.
Districts were remapped last year to avoid gerrymandering, and a new "top-two" primary system landed a handful of independents on the fall ballot. Proponents of the new rules hoped they would produce more moderate officeholders and eliminate the safety of many incumbents' seats. Waxman, 73, is one of several incumbents — including his friend Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village) — forced to fight for their jobs after years of cruising to victory.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 44% to 28% in the 33rd District, which runs from Beverly Hills and Malibu down the coast through the Palos Verdes Peninsula. That favors Waxman, whom the nonpartisan Almanac of American Politics called "long one of the ablest members of the House." During the 1970s and 1980s, he and Berman ran one of the L.A. area's most influential political operations.
Waxman emerged from the June primary with 45% of the vote to Bloomfield's 25% in a field of eight. But half of the district is new to the veteran, and he's courting voters there, including those in the South Bay's aerospace and defense industry.
He has spent weekends and House recess periods on the campaign trail. He's promised to fight any efforts to close the Air Force base in El Segundo, visited a local health group in Redondo Beach and attended the opening of another Democrat's Torrance campaign headquarters.
In Congress, where he is the senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Waxman has shepherded landmark legislation, often enlisting Republican help, on clean air, tobacco regulation and generic drugs. He secured money to fight AIDS and battled government fraud. He was a key player in the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, derided by Republicans as "Obamacare."
A skilled fundraiser, Waxman typically has given much of his campaign cash to other candidates and causes. This time he's concentrating on his own race. He spent about $550,000 in the June primary and had $1 million on hand as of June 30. He expects Bloomfield, who largely bankrolled his own $1.4-million primary run and had $6,400 left, to outspend him again this fall.
Bloomfield has deep pockets. He followed his father into the family's coin-operated laundry company before starting a couple of other successful businesses. Father and son also erected a well-known billboard on Santa Monica Boulevard in Westwood that has been keeping track of smoking-related deaths for 25 years.
Now retired, Bloomfield, 62, works with community groups and favorite causes. He serves on the board of five nonprofits and has contributed to such high-profile Republicans as former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona Sen. John McCain. He also has given to Democrats, including former Rep. Jane Harman of Venice and former state schools chief Jack O'Connell.
Bloomfield, whose supporters include former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, said he severed his lifelong ties with the Republican Party in March 2011. A self-described moderate on social issues (he said he supports gay marriage and abortion rights), he said the "growing hyperpartisanship got to me." He helped found the "No Labels" group in Washington, which aims to reduce partisanship in government.
He promises to "fix what's wrong" with the House and "end the partisan gridlock." He said he would work to change parts of the Affordable Care Act, although he would not vote to repeal it. Nor would he join the private policy meetings of either party. And he would argue for rule changes that would allow him to serve on committees as an independent.
Bloomfield also said he would continue efforts to secure U.S. borders but also would support a "path to citizenship" for otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants. Waxman said he would support changes that would deter illegal immigration and agrees that longtime U.S. residents should have a way "to obtain legal status."
Waxman, whose supporters include Obama, isn't buying Bloomfield's nonpartisanship, noting that he volunteered in McCain's presidential campaign and has contributed generously to Proposition 32, a November ballot measure that would restrict unions' ability to give to candidates but allow leeway for business interests.
Bloomfield said the measure, generally favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, "is a start" toward removing special-interest money from campaigns.