Not just a local hero

February 6, 2014 

Rep. Henry Waxman, who's retiring this year, is a once-in-a-generation congressional leader.

For 40 years, Rep. Henry Waxman has represented a wide swath of Los Angeles’ Westside. But the truth is that no single member of Congress has had a more far-reaching impact on the health and well-being of the entire nation than Waxman.

He championed legislation that led to cleaner air and water not only in L.A. but also in polluted cities across America. He was the driving force behind bills that restricted the use of pesticides and required food manufacturers to put those now-familiar nutrition labels on their products. He made sure that children in lower-income families had access to health insurance. He wrote the law that created the generic drug industry, saving consumers countless millions on their prescriptions.

And remember back in the mid-1990s, when the heads of the nation’s tobacco companies were collectively summoned to Washington for a televised hearing, during which they denied that their product was addictive? That landmark session was convened by Waxman, and it represented a turning point in the long and ultimately successful efforts to give the federal government more power to regulate tobacco.

Although Waxman is a proud liberal Democrat, a good number of those bills—and many others—were signed into law by Republican presidents, a testament to his mastery of the legislative process and his ability to build respect and consensus on both sides of the aisle.

With that legacy of accomplishment, it’s no wonder that, in recent days, there’s been an outpouring of praise for my friend and role model, the 20-term congressman. Last week, Waxman, surprised us all when he announced that he’d be retiring at the end of this year. At 74, he explained, it was time to begin the next chapter of his life. I can certainly understand that desire on the part of someone who has devoted his entire adult life to elective office. But I wish it wasn’t so.

Waxman’s departure will leave a huge void in Congress. Among many other things, his has been a powerful voice for the positive role government can play, especially in protecting the public health, whether you’re among the most fortunate of us or those struggling at the lower rungs of the economy. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his legislative work has saved millions of lives. He will surely be remembered as a huge idealist, but one with an unparalleled pragmatic capacity to turn those ideals into reality.

He also has been a great friend to Los Angeles County. In the mid-1990s, for example, when the county was confronting bankruptcy and the collapse of its health care system, Waxman stepped in to help secure the Clinton Administration’s help. In 2008, when federal officials wanted to sell off the Veterans Administration properties in Westwood, where so many deserving men and women have received assistance, Waxman again came to the rescue.

On a personal note, no public servant has taught me more about what it takes to bring about positive change in our society. Through his example, Waxman showed me that it’s not enough to have a vision. You must be willing to stay in the ring despite the long odds you may face. And when you’re knocked down, you get up and keep fighting for what you believe in.
As one of his longtime constituents, I’m grateful for his unmatched advocacy.

He’s going out a champion.

Waxman's tobacco hearings represented a turning point in bringing greater regulation to the industry.

Posted 2/6/14

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