In the more than three decades that she’s been a fixture on Capitol Hill, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has earned the reputation of a fierce advocate for protecting the environment.
But in her new memoir, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life," published in late May, Boxer reveals that her passion for the environment came later in life, when she moved to California in her early 20s.
Her tenacity, however, emerged in her youth, as a bully named Albert learned when he began to hassle a diminutive sixth-grader from Brooklyn named Barbara Levy.
Frustrated by the recurring taunts and hair-pulling, as well as the humiliation that followed after her mother intervened with the school principal to thwart another bully, Boxer recalled deciding "to take matters into my own hands" when Albert started in one day.
"I lost it," Boxer recalls in the book. "I took my number two sharp lead pencil out of my pencil case and stabbed him in the upper arm."
The effects were immediate; both Boxer and her tormentor burst into tears. She recalled being "stunned" and "ashamed" at her anger, but those feelings soon turned to dread after Albert didn’t show up for school for the next three days. On the third day, Boxer’s curiosity led her by Albert’s house after school. Seeing a black cloth covering the door, she was horrified by what she had done.
"Now I knew the truth. I had killed him," she writes.
The guilt led Boxer to confess the incident to her mother, who, after calling the school, learned that Albert’s grandfather had died. When the bully returned to school, Boxer was so happy to see him that she hugged him. "He wasn’t amused or particularly happy to see me, but after that, he left me alone," she writes.
Nearly 60 years later, the incident surprised a close Senate colleague who was unaware of it.
"She did?" Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said when the incident was described to him last week. "I didn’t know that. But I’m glad I didn’t know that because I sat next to her for what, 10 years, for three hours a week, and she always had a pencil there."
In her book, Boxer says the incident taught her the importance of controlling and channeling anger. "There are other ways to win an argument," she writes. "I wasn’t going to repeat that fiasco."
It was a useful lesson, and one that helped Boxer channel her frustration at racism, inequality and social injustice into a desire to make a difference.
"All of those things were part of who I was, so I carried them to whatever office I went to," Boxer recalled in an interview last week.
‘Beauty seared into me’
"The Art of Tough" traces Boxer’s journey from her childhood days in the streets of Brooklyn to California, where she and her attorney husband Stewart moved in the early 1960s and which would serve as a launching pad for her political career.
Her parents instilled an appreciation for social justice at an early age, but Boxer said her concern for the environment was sparked by her first visit to the Golden State in 1962.
"When I came to California, I was just overwhelmed by the beauty of it — it just made this enormous impact on me," she said last week. "If you read any book on California, it always starts with the environment, the beauty. That was seared into me from the moment I saw California."
After the move, Stewart worked as a lawyer, while Barbara went on to have two children. The pair became active in the anti-war movement, but after watching Bobby Kennedy’s assassination on live TV in 1968, Barbara decided that she wanted to do more to effect change.
She decided to run for the Marin County Board of Supervisors in 1972 on a platform focused on the environment and an "over-the-top" slogan she now finds embarrassing: "Save Marin County: Vote for Barbara."
Boxer went on to lose that race — the only one she’s lost — and was appalled by the sexism she encountered not just from voters but from other candidates, as well. She worked as a reporter for a few years, before trying her luck again in 1976, where she was elected to the position she was denied several years earlier.
"My fight as an elected official had begun," she recalls in her book, citing her work on transportation and clearing the air in Marin County.
Six years later, a House seat opened up, and Boxer threw her hat in the ring, plastering the district with posters emblazoned with "Barbara Boxer gives a damn; Ronald Reagan doesn’t."
The slogan worked, and at the age of 42, Boxer soon found herself in Washington, D.C., being sworn in by Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.).
Boxer soon got to business learning the ins and outs of Congress, a male-driven institution where female lawmakers weren’t even allowed to use the House gym. That changed after Boxer and a small group of women lawmakers that included Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) appealed to their male colleagues for access — in song, substituting their own lyrics, a long-favored pastime of Boxer’s.
She also pressed her views in less genial ways, as evidenced by a 1988 incident in which she walked out of a congressional delegation meeting with King Hassan II of Morocco, after becoming incensed by the monarch’s comments about "the Jewish mind." Other members of the delegation, which included civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former House Majority Whip Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), followed her lead.
Against the advice of friends and colleagues, Boxer in 1992 decided to run for the Senate seat opened up by the retirement of Democrat Alan Cranston.
But one longtime friend — Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) — encouraged Boxer to make the leap, and she won by 5 points, making history along with Dianne Feinstein (D), who won a special election that same year, as the first all-woman Senate delegation.
Making waves — and enemies
Boxer’s first choice for Senate committee assignments was the Environment and Public Works Committee, a position she won with the help of Vice President Joe Biden, a Delaware senator at the time, who counseled her on a strategy for convincing then-Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).
"Make the case that you were a known environmentalist in the House," Biden told her, and she won a spot on the committee, which she eventually chaired.
Boxer soon developed a reputation as an outspoken liberal, earning her enmity from GOP colleagues.
Outraged over the sexual harassment allegations made against Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), Boxer began to press the Ethics Committee for public hearings into the charges.
Fearful the case could cost them a seat, Republicans pushed back. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), then the ranking member on Ethics, sent word to Boxer though Mikulski, who chaired the panel investigating Packwood, to lay off or he would revive longstanding questions about the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy’s (D) role in the Chappaquiddick accident that killed a young aide. McConnell also threatened to highlight former Sen. Tom Daschle’s (D-S.D.) wife’s work as a lobbyist.
Outraged by the threat, Boxer recalled confronting McConnell on the Senate floor.
"Are you threatening me?" she asked. "No, I am promising you," McConnell responded, Boxer writes.
Undaunted, Boxer successfully forced an unsuccessful vote on public hearings, earning bitter criticism from Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who later became majority leader.
Bitterness over the issue lingered for the next 20 years, during which Boxer said she "barely" spoke to McConnell — until last year when the two suddenly came together to rescue the long-term highway bill that Boxer desperately wanted to finish.
That détente led to a newfound trust between the unlikely bedfellows, who celebrated their victory in the highway bill fight at a D.C. restaurant with their staffs and gifts.
Boxer also touches on another colleague with whom she’s had on-again, off-again disagreements over the years — John McCain.
The Arizona Republican, who like Boxer has a reputation as an occasional hothead, once banned Boxer from appearing before the Senate Commerce Committee he chaired after she had referenced remarks by former Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) while appearing as a witness.
McCain was incensed that Boxer had done so while Coburn — then in the House — wasn’t present to defend himself. Biden intervened to smooth things over between the pair, but Boxer and McCain have clashed repeatedly over the years, including when McCain campaigned in California for Carly Fiorina, Boxer’s GOP challenger in 2010.
In the book, Boxer writes: "John McCain is complicated. No one comes close." Later, however, she says of McCain that "he tolerates me. And he didn’t when our paths first crossed. So that’s progress, and one of the most unusual relationships I’ve had in politics."
‘My so-called climate nemesis’
Boxer doesn’t spill a lot of ink on another GOP colleague with whom she has a complicated relationship with — Inhofe.
At one point, she refers to him as "my so-called climate nemesis" but also notes that the two are longtime friends.
"I’m sure you are wondering how Jim could be my friend, but he is," she writes. "He and I know that we come from different planets when it comes to climate change, and we embrace the debate."
However, Boxer notes the pair have a successful track record on the infrastructure side of the EPW Committee’s jurisdiction.
Inhofe last week said the friendship between the two isn’t an act.
"We get along just really, really well," he said. "And that really bothers some of our adversaries. You know, we’re supposed to hate each other, but we don’t."
Nor, he said, has their friendship been strained by policy disputes, including climate change, which Inhofe maintains is a hoax.
"We both are pretty strong-minded and opinionated in our area, and so it’s become more humorous than anything else," said Inhofe, who, after a 12-hour markup of a cap-and-trade bill that passed the Environment and Public Works Committee when Boxer was chairwoman, congratulated her on the achievement, despite his opposition.
Boxer doesn’t spend a lot of time in the book rehashing the fights over climate change legislation and other environmental issues but does offer insight into the rewrite of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which President Obama signed into law last week.
She recounts the yearslong process to reach that agreement, which came after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) teamed up with the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg to craft an overhaul — a longtime goal of the New Jersey Democrat, who died in 2013.
Unhappy with the "shuck and jive" bill that resulted from the Vitter-Lautenberg collaboration and fearing the push would pre-empt strong standards at home in California, Boxer used her gavel to bottle up the bill, as discussions between Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Lautenberg’s replacement, and other interested Democrats persisted.
She writes that she found herself in "hand-to-hand combat with so many on this bill, and I could tell that my colleagues in my own party were really annoyed with me. I could see it in their eyes."
One unnamed Democratic senator eventually told Boxer, "I am telling you for your own good, you are now the most unpopular colleague in the Democratic caucus."
Boxer also drew criticism from Lautenberg’s widow, Bonnie, who complained to reporters that Boxer had lobbied Democratic senators against the original bill on the way to her husband’s funeral — a charge Boxer disputes. "I have no words to express my sadness at this," she writes.
After losing the EPW gavel to Inhofe last year, when Democrats lost the Senate majority, Boxer writes that she "worked overtime" with other Democrats to improve the bill until "it was no longer dangerous." Those changes ultimately led to a compromise that cleared the Senate unanimously by voice vote earlier this month, followed by last week’s signing ceremony, during which Obama signed the bill surrounded by Bonnie Lautenberg and key lawmakers, including Vitter — and Boxer.
In the book’s closing chapters, she laments the current politics surrounding an issue that used to carry broad bipartisan appeal.
"There is an overriding, depressing story on the changing nature of being an environmentalist lawmaker," Boxer writes. "Republicans with whom I served and who were actually leaders on climate change have turned away with a vengeance. I still can’t understand it."