Barbara Boxer to retire from Senate: Start of tectonic change in California politics?

The four-term senator announced Thursday that she would retire in 2016, opening the race to a wide field of contenders.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/File
Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D) of California speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington in December. Boxer said Thursday she won't seek re-election after 4th term.

California’s junior senator, Barbara Boxer announced Thursday that she will not run for re-election in 2016, marking an end to her 30-year career in Washington.

Senator Boxer’s announcement led to a flurry of accolades for her role as an aggressively progressive voice in the US Senate – as well as some lighter observations about the “mighty mite” moving on. 

At four feet, 11 inches, the diminutive four-term senator nonetheless became known for her “big voice.” Boxer was known as a relentless champion of liberal issues such as gender equality and environmental protection. She was the first female senator to chair the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. 

This role came at the cost of other accomplishments, however, as her record on stand-alone legislation is “sparse,” says David McCuan, a political science professor at Sonoma State University. Rather, he says, Boxer co-sponsored many pieces of legislation, choosing instead to focus her efforts on pushing cultural change.

“This tells us that ideology has always been very important to her, as she hoped to change the boys club atmosphere of the Senate,” Professor McCuan says. 

Boxer came to the Senate in 1992, after serving as a congresswoman during the Reagan administration. That was the so-called “Year of the Woman,” he points out.

“The insider game of changing the old boys debating club took a lot of work and continues to take a lot of work and this has been difficult for moving legislation forward,” he adds.

This could mark the beginning of a tectonic shift in California’s leadership, says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. She notes that Boxer is actually younger than Dianne Feinstein, the senior senator from California. 

“What would make the race really interesting is if Dianne decides not to run, either,” she says.

If the other icon of female leadership in California also bowed out, it could mark the beginning of an electoral free-for-all.

In any event, Boxer’s decision opens the 2016 race to a wide field of Democratic contenders. Former mayors Gavin Newsom and Antonio Villaraigosa have been mentioned, as has Hispanic congresswoman Loretta Sanchez. As for Republican possibilities, few interviewed believe the seat will turn red.

“Most of those who are interested are very liberal,” points out Ms. O'Connor.

Boxer used a Youtube video to deliver her announcement, in the form of a faux interview conducted by her grandson, asking such questions as whether age or acrimony in the senate influenced her decision. In both cases, the answer was an emphatic no.

“This makes me sad,” says San Francisco supervisor Scott Wiener, who notes that he will miss her progressive voice on the national scene. 

However, Boxer said that her decision not to run is not a retirement, rather a move to come home to California and work from that base. This is, after all, a woman who always carried a small platform known as the “Barbara Box,” to ensure that she would stand high enough to reach the microphone at public appearances. It is likely that she will continue to make her voice heard.

As she quipped in a homemade poem that concludes her video, “The Senate is the place where I’ve always made my case," she said. “For families, for the planet and the human race. More than 20 years in a job I love, thanks to California and the Lord above. So although I won’t be working for my Senate space, and I won’t be running in that next tough race, as long as there are issues and challenges and strife, I will never retire because that’s the meaning of my life."

This has led some to speculate that she is positioning herself for a spot under a potential Hillary Rodham Clinton administration, suggests McCuan, perhaps as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

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