The sushi is fresh, the muscat perfectly chilled and the denunciations of Iran’s theocracy unyieldingly firm.
It is a safe bet that few candidates running for office this year will find themselves pitching for the wealthy Iranian-Jewish-American vote.
But most of the leading candidates for California’s 33rd congressional district found time to attend a recent Beverly Hills “mixer” for 30 Years After, an organisation that aims to get local Iranian Jews interested in politics–if only for the chance to network with a notably well-heeled crowd.
The 33rd is a pistol-shaped coastal constituency that runs from the private beaches of Malibu to the bluffs of Palos Verdes, taking in several millionaires’ playgrounds on the west side of Los Angeles and some slightly grittier towns further south.
Whiter, richer and more Jewish than most other congressional districts, it is a fertile source of mirth for those who cannot quite believe that California is a real place. The New York Times has called it the “Botox Belt”, and the race is shaping up to be one of the most expensive in the country.
Yet it is this district, in one form or another, that Henry Waxman, a moustachioed policy expert with a deep knowledge of parliamentary procedure and no apparent experience of cosmetic surgery, has served for almost 40 years. In January Mr Waxman, a Democrat, unexpectedly said he would not seek re-election, declaring himself fed up with Republican obstructionism.
With the seat open for the first time in two generations, 18 candidates are battling it out. Since they must genuflect to the man they hope to replace, they stress their ability to get things done. “You’re not going to be successful running a populist campaign against Washington, DC in this district,” says Garry South, a local Democratic strategist.
Mr Waxman is one of the most effective legislators of recent history, helping pass laws on clean air, children’s health and much besides.
He has also been the scourge of food manufacturers, drug firms and banks. His grilling of tobacco bosses in 1994 was brutal; they floundered when repeatedly asked how many people had died from smoking. His priorities were liberal, like his constituents, but he was willing to work with Republicans and, occasionally, to take on his own side.
His successor will find it hard to fill his shoes, for two reasons. First, Mr Waxman scored some of his biggest wins through the committees he chaired; a first-term congressman will not be granted such a seat. Second, the House of Representatives is a far less chummy place these days.
One of Mr Waxman’s last big legislative efforts, a cap-and-trade bill to reduce carbon emissions, died in the Senate in 2010; Barack Obama now pursues climate policy almost exclusively through executive orders.
The race is unusually hard to read, thanks to newish political rules in California designed to boost moderates. The two candidates that win the most votes in the primary, on June 3rd, will progress to the general election in November, regardless of party. That will probably mean two Democrats, although their sheer number may dilute the vote enough to let a Republican sneak through.
Ted Lieu, a Taiwanese-American state senator with a strong local following, looks a good bet to come first; Wendy Greuel, a failed candidate for the mayoralty of Los Angeles, and Matt Miller, a policy wonk and radio host who won the coveted endorsement of the Los Angeles Times, may battle it out for second spot.
Turnout will be low in the primary, and somewhat higher in November. The Iranian-Jewish-American vote could yet prove crucial.
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