17 Primary Candidates Vie For Rep. Henry Waxman's Seat

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When the Democrat from Southern California announced his retirement earlier this year, he opened up a seat that had been occupied for decades. The top-two vote getters will face off in November.


Politicians in California are seizing a once in a generation opportunity. In fact, it's been more than a generation - since 1974 - that Henry Waxman has not been in Congress. As Waxman prepares to retire, 17 candidates are trying for his seat in a primary scheduled for tomorrow. It's a district that's been characterized as a place where fundraisers are synonymous with regattas. There's money in California's 33rd Congressional District, but there's a little more variety in the district than that. The district runs up and down the Southern California coast and there's a little variety in the candidates in line to replace Waxman. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's the weekend, and about 20 older people sit on couches in a high-rise senior center in the Tony Westwood neighborhood of LA. Democrat Wendy Greuel, thought to be one of the top candidates in the race for the 33rd District, takes the mic.

WENDY GREUEL: Well, I'm so happy to be here and some of you have had the chance to meet before. And so how many have voted for Henry Waxman over the years?

MCEVERS: Hands go up.

GREUEL: Does anyone know how many years he's been Congress member? 40 years. Forty years...

MCEVERS: First, Greuel makes it clear she won't veer from Waxman's path of progressive politics, like health care reform and government oversight. Then, she talks about her experience.

GREUEL: ...And then I went to work for the Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Clinton administration and Henry Cisneros, Andrew Cuomo, who were...

MCEVERS: See, this as a district where if a candidate has been part of the government, that's a good thing. Greuel also served as LA City Controller. Her main opponent in the race to fill Waxman's seat is Democratic State Senator Ted Lieu.


SENATOR TED LIEU: Two of the most important programs that America has ever done are Social Security and Medicare. So about a year and a half ago...

MCEVERS: Both candidates are fine with government spending and they're both stumping for seniors. But, this district is not just about older, rich white people. Lieu, a State Senator, represents a coastal area south of LA that was working class, and is now middle-class and increasingly Asian. Raph Sonenshein, of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State-Los Angeles says the district also is a place with high political participation.

RAPH SONENSHEIN: It's a place where people are reading the paper, following the races, showing up at public meetings, asking questions.

MCEVERS: Which he says is good for traditional candidates like Greuel and Lieu. But then there are the 15 other candidates running in this jungle primary. Where anyone from any party can run, and the top two vote getters face off in November. Other candidates are not as traditional, like local public radio host and former budget advisor to Bill Clinton, Democrat Matt Miller, campaigning here at a Jewish center on the boardwalk in Venice Beach.


MATT MILLER: While I think that the way we finance campaigns and the influence of money and lobbyists in campaigns is one of our biggest problems. I actually...

MCEVERS: And then there's Independent Marianne Williamson, a popular self-help author.


MARIANNE WILLIAMSON: Hi. Good afternoon, I apologize for being late.

MCEVERS: She recently led this forum in Santa Monica, titled Food, Wellness and Politics.

WILLIAMSON: One of the issues, of course, that has been a big conversation in this campaign, because it's a big conversation this community, is about the corruption of our food supply. About GMO's...

MCEVERS: There are Republicans who are serious contenders in this traditionally Democratic District, like former gang prosecutor Elan Carr. Sonenshein says the top two vote-getter format makes it hard to predict who will win tomorrow's primary. One thing is almost certain, he says - the winner in November will be a Democrat, and that Democrat will wield power. There's a reason, he says, that big-ticket Democrats all the way up to the president, come here to this district, like dozens of times a year.

SONENSHEIN: This is the money bread basket of the national Democratic Party, and it has been so ever since Bill Clinton made his pilgrimage out here in 1992, to make California the home of the new Democratic Party.

MCEVERS: The 33rd District is the second wealthiest district in the country after Manhattan. But Sonenshein says the money from the 33rd comes with strings attached. Whoever gets elected won't be able to fill Henry Waxman's shoes, he says.

SONENSHEIN: You have a chance to make it to the major leagues, but the person who batted in that position before you was Babe Ruth.

MCEVERS: So he says you better hold firm on issues like the environment, women's rights, gay rights and affordable healthcare. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.


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