In the two years since President Donald Trump took up residence in the White House, California Democrats have seemingly been trying to outdo one another to be the loudest and most anti-Trump politician in the country.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Manhattan Beach, has been a fixture on Twitter and cable news networks trolling the president at every turn.
Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, became such a prominent Trump critic that she was targeted by a man who mailed explosive devices to a long list of the president’s adversaries.
And Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank—who is on the verge of become one of the most powerful Democrats in the country as head of the House Intelligence Committee—has talked about using the committee’s subpoena power to further probe Trump’s connections to Russia.
But if you were to ask an average resident the name of Long Beach’s left-leaning congressman, you might get a shrug.
His name is Alan Lowenthal, a 77-year-old academic-turned-politician who is certainly known among local and statewide politicos. He has been a fixture in Long Beach politics for nearly three decades and is the patriarch of a political dynasty in the city, but has thus far resisted becoming an A-list talk show nemesis on the national stage.
“I don’t scream and yell, I just make it very clear where I am and what I’m going to do,” Lowenthal said in a recent interview. “I don’t like turning up the volume. It’s not my style. Sometimes you have to do that when you have no other vehicle; sometimes you have to scream and yell.”
A new formative moment is coming in Lowenthal’s political career: He will be in the majority party for the first time in his tenure in Washington, D.C., come Thursday (Democrats last held the majority in 2011).
But the man who worked his way up from community activist and professor to city councilman, then Assemblyman, then State Senator before finally being elected as the representative of California’s 47th Congressional District in 2012, has been consistent in his milder political style.
It was on display at a recent rally at Harvey Milk Park over the resignation of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions that drew an unexpectedly sizable crowd of about 300 people. The raucous group held signs, yelled and listened to speakers.
One of them was Lowenthal, who stood in the middle of the crowd in a dark suit and tie, in front of a sign that read “Lock Him Up” in reference to Trump, and spoke as methodically as a professor in a classroom.
He promised very succinctly that the new Congress taking power in January would “stop President Trump.”
Rep. Alan Lowenthal talking about the importance of protecting the Mueller investigation after a protest at Harvey Milk Park November 8, 2018.
Lowenthal prefers to be seen as a negotiator, a consensus-builder, a mediator—all qualities of a more genteel era. Will he be able to make an impact in these more bellicose, hyper-partisan times, or will he fade into the backdrop?
This is certainly the time to make an impact. When the new Congress begins Thursday, Jan. 3, Lowenthal and other Democrats who have held minority roles on committees are in line to take leadership roles, which will allow them to direct policy, and if needed, subpoena witnesses to testify.
A long-time environmentalist, Lowenthal could assume a leadership position on a number of committees and subcommittees, including oversight of transportation, water, national parks and natural resources—all of which have seen regulations and oversight weakened by the Trump administration.
Lowenthal currently serves on the transportation and infrastructure and natural resources subcommittees.
Among his priorities in the new Congress, he said, are addressing the nation’s immigration system, specifically preventing deportations of Vietnamese refugees that the Trump administration has pursued, and a way to remedy the status of parents who were deported to Mexico with their young children who are American citizens.
With his district including two islands (Catalina and San Clemente) in addition to the Long Beach coastline, he wants to begin planning for the costs of sea level rise and ways to balance economic growth with a reduction in the nation’s carbon footprint.
“I really want to modernize the nation’s ability to handle freight but to do it in a way that reduces pollution and gets us off carbon,” Lowenthal said. “I think it’s consistent with what we’re doing here in terms of electrification of the ports and I’d like to be part of an infrastructure package that at least has those principals.”
Lowenthal wasn’t always interested in politics—at least not the politician part of it.
He grew up in New York as the descendant of Eastern European Jews displaced by the Holocaust. He says he grew up socially aware, pointing to his high school days when he supported Adlai Stevenson’s advocacy to ban hydrogen bombs and his participation in the movement against the war in Vietnam.
His transition to an educator specializing in community psychology was a natural one for him. The field seeks to understand how people’s circumstances impact them, and then working with local governments, school systems and disenfranchised communities to address those issues. Lowenthal said he likely would’ve remained in academia had it not been for a scandal that rocked the Long Beach Police Department in the spring of 1989.
Don Jackson, an undercover former police officer with a television camera crew tailing him, was filmed having his head shoved through a plate-glass window by an LBPD officer. The footage sparked national outrage and Lowenthal, then the president of a coalition of community groups known as the Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, moved to pressure the City Council into passing reforms.
The city did not have any way for citizens to lodge complaints against police. Lowenthal and others did not have funding to get a charter amendment on the ballot for a citizen police complaint commission, so he and others worked to garner support from the City Council.
Lowenthal hoped that his councilman, the late Wally Edgerton, would be the fifth and decisive vote in favor, but Edgerton told Lowenthal he didn’t want to be involved in the matter. Lowenthal said he found the fifth vote elsewhere and then ran the campaign that led to the creation of the commission approved by voters in 1990.
“The day we won I said, ‘I’m running against Wally Edgerton for City Council,’” Lowenthal said.
He indeed won, and over the next six years, Lowenthal was part of a City Council that oversaw dramatic changes in Downtown Long Beach. The convention center was expanded, the Aquarium of the Pacific was completed and the foundation for what was to become the Pike at Rainbow Harbor was laid out.
Les Robbins, who served on the council during that time, remembers Lowenthal as a visionary who wanted to leave a mark on the city that would improve the quality of life for its residents. Robbins described Lowenthal as a quiet gentleman who didn’t like to run roughshod over people, instead choosing to build consensus on the issues, a style, he said, that has helped Lowenthal to remain in office, something that is hard to do the longer someone has served.
“It’s hard to be an elected official and not make enemies,” Robbins said. “The longer you’re there the more enemies you make. Alan’s just one of these guys whose style has not lent itself to building an enemies list.”
His more quiet style has been molded by his prior work as a psychologist and grassroots activist that stretches back to his days as a post-World War II youth in New York. His calm and respectful deal-making has earned the admiration of his colleagues at all stops along his legislative journey, and he says that may actually prove to be an asset in the current political climate rather than a liability.
“We’ve just watched the Republicans split apart; they are not a unified party anymore,” Lowenthal said. “That could be us, too, if we’re not any brighter. That’s going to be the critical issue.”
Before heading to Washington, Lowenthal was a force in state politics. His work in both houses of the State Legislature produced bills that provided incentives for shipping companies to slow cargo ships when entering portions of the state’s coast, which has cut emissions and led to fewer collisions between ships and whales.
His work set the foundation for what eventually became the Clean Air Action Plan adopted by the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which was updated this year to include a goal to reduce emissions to near zero or zero by 2035. And his advocacy on independent redistricting ultimately led to the creation of the congressional district that he currently represents.
Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat who represents part of the Bay Area, has worked with Lowenthal since their days in the State Legislature. He described Lowenthal as a “craftsman.”
“He gets his reward from working with other people irrespective of their view, and he gets product,” DeSaulnier said. “Whether that’s bringing people together to work on regulations or working on a bill and getting amendments on a bill, he’s really good at that.”
Rep. Garret Graves is a Republican who represents a starkly different part of the country than Lowenthal. Graves’ Southern Louisiana district is whiter and more conservative than Long Beach, but Graves said that he and Lowenthal are very similar in their willingness to work across the aisle and their dedication to the people they represent.
“If you start doing too much of the national stuff I think it starts distorting who it is you’re representing and who you’re speaking to and for,” Graves said.
Graves said he respects Lowenthal for his ability to look at issues through an independent lens and see things from the point of view of the bill’s sponsor rather than voting with a “mass mentality” by following directives from party leadership.
What to expect from the new majority
When the Democrats report for work this week, many of them will be in the unfamiliar territory of having the power to move bills instead of chipping away at legislation through amendments. However, because their bills will still have to pass the Senate and be signed into law by the president, few people are expecting an onslaught of new policies.
Kevin Wallsten, an associate professor of political science at Cal State Long Beach, said subpoena power may be the most powerful tool the Democrats won in November’s midterms.
He added that while Democrats do hold one of the levers of power, they’ll likely continue to cast themselves as the group fighting against Trump, but that the subpoena power might allow them to corroborate some of the claims they’ve been making about corruption within the administration.
“What I think you’re likely to see is a more evidentiary approach to the resistance,” Wallsten said.
“They’re really going to try and pin down some Trump administration officials and Trump associates and try to set themselves up for 2020 as the people who exposed corruption in the administration and really try to expand the host majority, take back the Senate and, of course, win the presidency.”
Lowenthal said the party must be careful with its newfound power. Its members need to be viewed as serious legislators in the coming years, not as obstructionists, he said. The party was calculated in its decision to not use the word “impeachment” on the campaign trail, instead pivoting to issues like health care and taxes to drum up support.
While few people expect any major legislative victories to come out of the next two years for either side, Lowenthal says that the Congress now looks a lot more like the country it is serving. It is divided, a lot like America, but the difference now is that the two bodies in Congress aren’t squarely on one side of that divide.
They may continue to yell and protest, but now the Democrats have a seat at the table. And that’s something they haven’t had in some time.
“We have to deal with the president and we have to deal with the Senate,” Lowenthal said. “But they have to deal with us, too. So it’s going to be a very interesting time.”
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