Ex-Senator stays tough on issues that matter to her

Barbara Boxer


Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer is quick to clarify that she isn’t retired. She just decided not to seek re-election last year after more than three decades in the House and Senate.

And it’s pretty clear why she doesn’t just want to relax in her home state of California.

“In 2018, we’re going to have an election for Congress, and if we don’t take a stand, I think we are in deep trouble because right now, the Republicans run everything and that means the right wing runs everything,” said Boxer, who has written a memoir, “The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life.” She will speak Sunday, Nov. 5, at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival.

Like other Democrats, Boxer describes President Donald Trump as a demagogue.

But Boxer, especially, sounds authentic in expressing concerns about the treatment of women in the workplace and climate change because women’s rights and the environment were two of her core issues as a lawmaker.

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“Barbara Boxer has been one of the most steadfast champions for women and families in the United States Senate,” Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, which helps elect women who support reproductive rights, told The Atlantic when Boxer announced her departure.

And in praising Boxer’s memoir, actor and environmentalist Ted Danson wrote, “It takes a true warrior to fight against the biggest polluters who would degrade our environment. That warrior is Barbara Boxer, who has been my partner for years in protecting our oceans so that their beauty remains for future generations.” 

In advance of her visit, Boxer, 76, spoke with the Jewish Light about Republican opposition to environmental regulations, recent sexual harassment allegations and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, and about her appearance with Danson on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” 


When you announced your retirement, did you have a sense that the country was as polarized as it appears to be right now and that a candidate like Donald Trump could be elected?

No, no way.


How did you view the country and what do you think the forces were that got Trump elected?

I think if you look at the Republican Party, it’s been moving to the very far right and it’s been nurturing this divisiveness and anger at government and blaming somebody else for your life. The socially more liberal but fiscally conservative [group] kind of signed off on the negative social justice side of things, where they went after gays and women. It’s kind of been an unholy alliance. 

When I came into office, I was very strong on the environment and [abortion rights] and those issues were very bipartisan. You didn’t really know who was going to be with you. It was really an American value that women have a right to privacy and that people want clear air and water. It all changed over the years, and I think it set the stage for a Donald Trump.


Have you been surprised by some of the recent allegations of men sexually harassing women? Did you feel like the country had moved past this or that this was still an underlying element?

I was very involved in the Anita Hill debacle, where she accused [then Supreme Court justice nominee] Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. I was a House member. The Senate at that time was going to just close down the hearings, and the women of the House marched over to the Senate and demanded that there be hearings. 

The Senate committee treated Anita very badly, and later we found out that there were four other women willing to come forward and they didn’t even invite them into the room. It was a very bitter and awful experience, and I think that we did take advantage of the times and passed better laws that said you’re covered by the [Civil Rights Act of 1964] if you discriminate and harass women in the workplace. There is now a definite path for women who work for employers with 15 or more employees. 


Had you seen other cases of men in Washington harassing women?

The bottom line is I’m not shocked at these allegations at all but I am distressed that this behavior continues. I would hope that we would have a change but we also have to work toward that change because it’s not just laws. There already are laws. 

It’s really a culture, and the culture has to change. It’s like the gun culture. We keep seeing these horrific things happening, like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, and we keep saying, ‘That’s it.’ We have got some challenges, and it’s going to take strong leaders, and it’s going to take courage to step out and lead. And in our history, we have always had those people, so of course, I’m always hopeful that it will happen.


Why do you think there is such resistance on the right to taking action to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change?

They have sold out to the polluters, clearly. You have got the Koch brothers. You have got the oil companies. And they all have created doubt around the issue the way the tobacco companies did. They even use some of the same lobbyists — I write about that in the book — so it’s a sell-out. 

It’s the saddest thing because it’s our grandkids and their kids who are going to really suffer. We already see the changing climate, we see hurricanes like we have never seen. We have seen fires the likes of which we have never seen, and it’s obvious that everything that scientists predicted is happening. 

But as Al Gore said, it’s an inconvenient truth. And who is it inconveniencing? The big polluters, and they are bound and determined to shut us down. But I have hope because young people get it.”


What are your top priorities now out of office?

My top priority is to keep my voice out there for the things that I have fought for all my life: fairness and justice and equal rights and the environment, education, treating people fairly. This work that I am doing with my PAC is from the heart because I know that you can’t win if you don’t have the funds to get your message out. I am raising funds from my people who have supported me over the years and helping many people who are running and telling the truth about Republicans who are hiding in the corner and saying nothing as Trump and his henchmen go after American values. 


With your memoir, what were you trying to communicate to readers?

I wanted to take them into the backroom to see how things get done, some of the struggles that I faced in my work. It’s really in many ways a love note to my profession. I know it’s politically incorrect to say that public service is an honor, but it was an honor for me.


Do you have any connection to St. Louis or Missouri that stands out to you?

What stands out to me is what a great senator you have in Claire McCaskill. She is so straightforward and right from the heart,  and she is fearless and cares about the people of the state. And I have loved watching her because it’s a tough state for a Democrat to win. But if anyone can do it, she can do it. [McCaskill is up for reelection next year.]


Last question and this is important: To prepare for the interview, I watched the episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which you guest star, so I just wanted to know whether  you are still in the habit of stealing dry cleaning and what it was like to be on the show?

Well my attitude on dry cleaning is pretty much the same. I go in and I always forget my little piece of paper and I say, “Do you have my laundry?” And I just hope to God that it’s the right stuff. In terms of working with Larry David, it was so much fun, because I’m not an actress, obviously, but I could play myself, which is what I did. He kind of doesn’t write any script at all. He just says to you, “Here’s the story, here’s the joke, here’s what we’re trying to do, so play it naturally. Don’t learn any lines.”  And so I was able to do that, and it was so much fun. We didn’t even do any retakes. 

What’s really funny is people will come up to me and say, “I want to thank you for your service, but the best thing ever was that Larry David appearance.”