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Sen. Barbara Boxer on toughness in politics: 'Never act out of anger. Just process it and win the day.'

The junior senator for California, first elected in 1976, is retiring from the Senate at, in her own characterization, 75 years young. She talked with us about what's next.

Barbara Boxer, the junior Senator for California first elected in 1976, is retiring from the U.S. Senate this year at, in her own characterization, 75 years young.

Barbara Boxer's new memoir, "The Art of Tough," spans her 40-year career representing Californians on Capitol Hill, including her then-unpopular 2002 opposition to the Iraq war and her fierce work on the Environment and Public Works Committee. A notable career highlight was exposing Pentagon overspending, including $7,600 appropriated for a single coffee maker.

Sen. Boxer herself was once implicated in a widespread scandal in which congressional members were writing bad checks (complete with overdraft fees charged to taxpayers) on the House Bank — Boxer later reimbursed the fees.

After a career winning 11 elections, Boxer leaves her seat open in what could now be a highly competitive race between contenders Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez.

Here are some highlights from the interview:

Just a few months left in the Senate…what mix of feelings are you dealing with?

I’m very proud. I’m very touched that the people of California have sent me [back to the Senate] over and over, four terms. I’ve gotten things done I’m very proud of: after school for a million kids a year, a million acres in wilderness, special comprehensive casualty care for vets, highway bills, water bills, the list goes on. I’m particularly proud that even though sometimes I stood alone in positions that [CA voters] stuck with me.

After nearly four decades in elected office, aren’t you going to have to go through withdrawals?

I don’t know about that because I don’t intend to retire. I intend to continue work on the issues that I care about, just in a little bit of a different way. I won’t have to fly all those miles across country. I can headquarter in California, which is the place I love, so I’m actually looking forward to that part of it.

What kinds of things do you see yourself doing when you retire from the Senate?

I’m not going to tell you exactly what I’m going to do because I don’t have that all done. You’re not really supposed to do that until you’re out. In general, though, I want to be a progressive voice. Where that voice comes over, whether it’s on the radio or a podcast, whether it’s through my PAC that I’ll continue to have to help others win office, whether it’s in a classroom…there’s just all kinds of possibilities. I know that I’m going to keep on going because I care so much and I’m not going to abandon the issues that I’ve championed for so many years.

The book cover of Senator Barbara Boxer's new memoir, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life."
The book cover of Senator Barbara Boxer's new memoir, "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life."

As you watch the two Democrats qualify for the runoff to succeed you (Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez) they epitomize a couple big changes in CA politics, one of which is the top-two primary. The other is you’ve got ethnically diverse women with much higher visibility in the state. Your thoughts on one of them succeeding you?

I think it very appropriate that we look for diversity in this Senate. We still, even after all this time, have only 20 women out of 100. When I started there were two, when Dianne Feinstein got elected. We had a class that brought it up to six but that’s far away from the 50 percent that we really ought to have if we’re going to reflect the makeup of this great nation. And of course, in California, where we have such a diverse population, it’s absolutely wonderful that we have this kind of possibility this time.

Are you going to be tempted to endorse between the two, or because they’re both Democrats are you concerned about making an endorsement?

Good question. They’re both my friends who have supported me for years and years. At this point, I’m not getting involved. I have said publicly that if they carry the progressive banner that I’ve worked so hard to carry, and they both carry it, that’s a win-win. If something takes a turn in one way or the other, I could step in. But, to me, it’s the voters that will decide this.

You’re very up front in your book about the kind of criticism you’ve received and insults that have been sent your way in your time in Congress.  How have you processed that? It’s not something all members of Congress get.

The purpose of the book was two-fold: one is to take my readers in the back of the room to see what’s going on inside those rooms where decisions were made. Who is in the room and who is left out of the room, whether on purpose or not, makes a big difference. The second gets to your question, which is how do you get that toughness that you need to put up with what comes with the territory. Mostly, these weren’t members of Congress that I was quoting in the beginning of the book, although I’ve gotten my share from some of them. But mostly these are right wing, so-called pundits, one of whom said “Barbara Boxer is the perfect Democrat: female and learning disabled.” That was Ann Coulter. The reason I start off the book that way is I want to show my readers why I named my book “The Art of Tough.” You do have to be tough to wear that kind of criticism, in many ways as a badge of honor. You have to let it roll off your back. One of the rules of toughness is to never act out of anger. Just process it and win the day.

When it came down to supporting Bernie Sanders, you have Bernie more aligned with your position but Hillary has a long relationship with you, and it’s even familial because your daughter Nicole is married to her youngest brother, Tony. How did you make that decision?

That was easy. I had actually asked Hillary to run long before Bernie got into the race. I organized a letter and practically all of us women senators signed it asking her to run. I felt this was her time. She was so gracious when she lost that very close race to [now-President Obama] she actually set it aside and walked with him through that convention. She went out and campaigned and when he asked her to be part of his administration as Secretary of State, she stepped up and did it. It was pretty remarkable. I thought she had earned, at least in my eyes, the right to run again. She’s been my candidate before she was even announced.


Barbara Boxer, Democratic U.S Senator for California; Boxer’s new memoir is "The Art of Tough: Fearlessly Facing Politics and Life" (Hachette; May 2016)

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