A New Yorker by birth and a Californian by choice, Barbara Boxer served in Congress from the Golden State for 34 years, including 10 years in the House and 24 years in the Senate. A forceful advocate for families, children, consumers, and the environment, Boxer retired from the Senate at the end of the 114th Congress (2015–2017). She had an understated, straightforward approach to the legislative process, which she outlined in one of her farewell interviews. “It’s very easy,” she said. “You introduce legislation that moves us forward. You fight bad legislation.”1
Barbara Levy was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 11, 1940, to Ira Levy and Sophie Silvershein Levy. She graduated with a B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1962 and married Stewart Boxer. The family relocated to northern California in 1965, where the Boxers raised two children: Doug and Nicole. Prior to her marriage, Levy was a stockbroker and economic researcher for Wall Street securities firms.2 In 2005 the Boxers moved from Marin County to Rancho Mirage in southern California.3
Boxer first jumped into politics in 1968 while doing volunteer work for the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign. In 1970 she helped found an antiwar organization, the Marin Alternative, to protest the ongoing conflict in Vietnam. Boxer worked for the Pacific Sun newspaper as a reporter and associate editor from 1972 to 1974. And from 1974 to 1976 Boxer worked for Congressman John Burton who represented the California district encompassing Marin County. In 1972, she ran for a seat on the Marin County Board of Supervisors, losing to the incumbent Republican. But four years later, in 1976, she won election to the board, and served as its first chairwoman.4 “She faced a lot of adversity from people who didn’t treat her the way they would treat a man,” said Sam Chapman, a long-time aide. “But she didn’t give in. It’s her nature to get fired up. And you knew she was going somewhere.”5
In 1982, John Burton unexpectedly decided to retire from the U.S. House and endorsed Boxer to take his place. In the general election she defeated Republican Dennis McQuaid with 52 percent of the vote. Her subsequent re-election campaigns for her House seat provided no serious challengers.6
Boxer served in the majority during each of her five terms in the House. Her initial committee assignments were to Government Operations (98th–99th and 101st Congresses [1983–1987, 1989–1993]), Merchant Marine and Fisheries (98th Congress [1983–1985]), and, briefly, to Interior and Insular Affairs (1983) and to the Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families (1983). She later served on Budget (99th–101st Congresses [1985–1991]), Armed Services (100th Congress [1987–1989]), and the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction (1987). Boxer also became chairwoman of the Government Activities and Transportation Subcommittee of the Government Operations Committee.
Boxer gained a reputation as a liberal firebrand in the House. Her Small Business and Federal Procurement Competition Enhancement Act became law in 1984, improving the likelihood that small business would win government contracts (P.L. 98–577). And during a 1984 Armed Services Committee hearing she made headlines with her revelations of wasteful Pentagon spending with a coffee pot purchased for $7,622. In the lead-up to the First Gulf War in 1990 Boxer took a public stand in opposition to U.S. involvement. She was part of a bipartisan House group of women members who marched on the Senate to demand extended hearings on sexual-harassment charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991.8 “She stands up and fights for what she believes in,” observed California Representative George Miller, a colleague from the Bay Area. “And she doesn’t back up a step.”9
In 1992 both of California’s Senate seats opened after Alan Cranston decided not to run for a fourth term and Pete Wilson was elected governor back home. Boxer declared for Cranston’s seat while San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein sought to fill Wilson’s remaining term. In the three-way Democratic primary Boxer won the nomination with 44 percent of the vote against a former lieutenant governor and a fellow U.S. Representative. In the general election, she defeated Bruce Herschensohn, a conservative Los Angeles media commentator by five points, 48 percent to 43 percent.10
Her two subsequent re-elections to the Senate were by much more comfortable margins. In 1998, she defeated state treasurer Matt Fong with 53 percent of the vote. And in 2004, she beat back a challenge by California’s secretary of state Bill Jones, winning by 20 percentage points, 58 percent to 38 percent. In her final re-election in 2010, Boxer, with the help of President Barack Obama who flew to California to campaign with her, defeated businesswoman Carly Fiorina with 52 percent of the vote.11
Boxer’s Senate service stretched over 12 Congresses, lasting from 1993 to 2017. She served in the majority for five Congresses and in the minority for six Congresses. The evenly divided 107th Congress (2001–2003), began under Republican control and ended with the Democrats in charge.
Boxer’s initial Senate committee assignments included Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs (103rd–105th Congresses [1993–1999]), Budget (103rd–106th Congresses [1993–2001]), Environment and Public Works (103rd–114th Congresses [1993–2017]) and the Joint Economic Committee (103rd Congress [1993–1995]). She was later assigned to Appropriations (105th Congress [1997–1999]), Foreign Relations (106th–114th Congresses [1999–2017]), and Commerce, Science and Transportation (2001–2017). Boxer also served on the Special Committee to Investigate Whitewater Development Corporation and Related Matters (104th Congress [1995–1997]) and the Select Committee on Ethics (110th–114th Congresses [2007–2017]). Boxer was chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee from 2007 to 2015.
The House culture Boxer came from may have favored majority rule, but the Senate operated far differently. Individual Senators wielded far more power over the legislative process and just a single Senator could prevent an idea or an amendment from being considered. “In the House, if I could just convince my side, it got in the bill,” Boxer said. “Here it’s a whole other thing. You’ve got to be able to convince everybody.”12
As she developed the ability to find consensus, Boxer didn’t shy away from also exercising her individual power. Early in her Senate career, the progressive crusader held the Senate Floor for three days in a row in order to block legislation against plans to gut environment and health standards. “People thought Barbara Boxer was pretty insane to be up there alone filibustering that issue,” said Lynn Golman of the Environmental Protection Agency. “But she wasn’t intimidated.”13 And in 2005, Boxer used the confirmation hearings for Condoleezza Rice’s nomination as Secretary of State to reiterate her opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s foreign policies and the second Iraq War. “I will . . . not shrink from questioning a war that was not built on truth,” she announced.14
Working on the Environment and Public Works Committee provided Boxer with ample opportunities to work across the aisle, and infrastructure programs led to several partnerships.15 In an era of heightened partisanship, Boxer may have disagreed sharply over policy with her Republican colleagues on the committee, but she had strong personal relationships with many of them. “We really like each other,” Boxer said about Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who often took an opposite stand on climate change issues. “And I think, also, what’s important is we know how strongly we feel when we oppose each other, but we never surprise each other by going around someone’s back and sneaking something into a bill.” Inhofe agreed. “You can disagree with someone and love ‘em anyway.”16
In 2007, for instance, the two worked to shepherd a long overdue water resources and infrastructure bill through the Senate. Although President George W. Bush vetoed the popular bill, both the House and Senate overrode that veto with a two-thirds majority (P.L. 110–114).17 It was another seven years before Congress passed a large water bill again, but in 2014, with Boxer able to round up a bipartisan majority in the Senate (her committee approved it unanimously), the Water Resources Development Act became law in 2014 (P.L. 113–121). The negotiations during the long-overdue bill were made all the more delicate by the fact that Congress had agreed to more or less omit earmarks.18
It was also Boxer’s work as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee that led to a stand to advance efforts to mitigate climate change. In 2007, the committee approved S. 2191, sponsored by Independent Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Senator John W. Warner of Virginia. The bill established a cap-and-trade program which placed quotas on greenhouse-gas emissions, but allowed businesses to buy and sell unused shares of the emissions quota depending on their need. Companies that cut emissions could then sell their reserve allowances at a profit to other companies which needed extra cushion to meet federal regulations. Under Boxer’s leadership the committee mark-up maintained a tenuous coalition for passage, but a later Republican filibuster prevented the bill from being considered in the full Senate.19
Boxer revisited the cap-and-trade bill in the next Congress in which Democrats controlled the House, the Senate, and the presidency. Operating on a tight deadline before a United Nations environmental summit, however, Boxer used an obscure “technicality” in Senate rules that enabled the committee to approve the bill without input from the minority party, assuming no Member attempted to amend the legislation. The bill was missing a number of details that Boxer hoped to fill in later, but the move to force the legislation out of committee enraged Republicans and it wasn’t long before the effort ground to a halt.20
Alongside the broader scope of her tenure as chairwoman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, a number of Boxer’s own environmental legislation became law. She managed to tighten the federal definition of “lead free” (P.L. 111–380), help control the spread of invasive species (P.L. 112–237), and named a 12,000-foot mountain in the eastern Sierras after conservationist and Olympic skier Andrea Lawrence (P.L. 112–259).21
Over the course of her Senate career, Boxer had a number of other notable legislative achievements. She opened federal funds to states looking to “retrofit” bridges to better withstand earthquakes (P.L. 103–220), opened scientific research into organ transplants between HIV-positive patients (P.L. 113–51), improved mental health care for female veterans (P.L. 114–188), and reaffirmed and strengthened America’s strategic relationship with Israel (P.L. 113–296).
Boxer announced her decision not to run for reelection in January 2015, but she made clear that she would remain politically active. “I am never going to retire—the work is too important, but I will not be running for the Senate in 2016,” she said. “I want to come home to the state that I love so much: California.”22 In the round of exit interviews that followed her announcement she said, “There is a time when you want the next generation to step in and step up.”23
View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
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