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The Last Liberal 

Barbara Boxer's toughest campaign

Wednesday, Oct 28 1998
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Everywhere she goes, so goes The Box. About 4 inches high and sturdily constructed of varnished wood, The Box has strips of black sandpaper running across the top. If she wanted to, she could hit The Box with a running jump and still keep her footing.

What few people know is that she has not just one kind of Box, but two. Identical in appearance, there are the ones paid for with official government funds and there are the ones purchased by Friends of Barbara Boxer. Recently, when she was making an appearance at a Democratic-headquarters opening in West Hollywood, a couple of young volunteers in faded T-shirts and baggy shorts caused a commotion, shoving their way through a crowd of supporters, hoping to get The Box (the privately funded one) onto the platform before she started to speak. Meanwhile, the publicly owned Box was resting somewhere else, ready to elevate her at the next government function.

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The thing is, she doesn't seem to much like The Box, is always hopping off it, as if she's convinced that it cramps her style, that without it she could be even more effective at reaching out to people. But even in serious heels, the 4-foot-11-inch Barbara Boxer has no choice but to use The Box.

"Can you see me?" the 57-year-old U.S. senator asks hopefully, standing alongside The Box on the carpeted dais of the L.A. Ballroom at the Century City Hotel.

"No!" shouts back the audience, made up of longtime constituents, a handful of left-wing-credentialed celebrities (Laura Dern, Tracey Ullman, a couple of Zappa family members) and some local politicians (Jackie Goldberg, Laura Chick, Sheila Kuehl), who now have a perfect view of a podium, a tuft of black hair and a bit of Boxer forehead. Just for a moment, the shoulders of her shell-pink linen suit rise up in a shrug. Then she climbs back up on The Box.

She's at an event that she likes, a fund-raiser luncheon she's been throwing for the past seven years called "Women Making History." Similar in spirit to the Lilith Fair (only without the beating sun and the belly rings), high-priced tickets are sold to a group of women (and a few men) who get to dress up, be together in one place and celebrate other females who are making a difference in a dude-dominated world.

Each year, "Women Making History" recognizes forerunners from a different profession. On this bright April afternoon - not surprisingly in an election year when she needs to raise real money - she's honoring stalwarts of show biz like director Mimi Leder (Deep Impact) and producer Janet Yang (The People vs. Larry Flynt). Then comes writer Josefina Lopez. Josefina Who? "I can't believe that you know who I am," says the young woman in the gauzy lavender gown, who in a trembling voice talks movingly about how invisible she felt to the rest of the world when she was growing up poor and undocumented in Boyle Heights. The fact is that few here have any idea who she is or what she does in Hollywood (she wrote an award-winning play called Simply Maria, or The American Dream and has created three TV series, only they're all still in development), but her outpouring of gratitude is genuinely poignant. Now even these compulsive Hollywood meeting-takers have stopped picking at their damp Chinese-chicken salads and are weeping openly into their cloth napkins. Before Lopez makes it offstage, a wet-eyed Boxer leaps from The Box and embraces her. Then, hopping back on The Box, she leans into the microphone and, swallowing sobs, promises, "We're going to get through this today."

This day, an onlooker might be forgiven for assuming he had stumbled into a noontime estrogen bender. But the luncheon is the kind of rare, inclusive political event that Boxer is gifted at staging, one where the emotional distance between the candidate and her supporters becomes effectively nil. Even onstage, trapped atop The Box, she still seems fluent, comfortable, because Boxer the government servant is very like Boxer the woman, edged with steel, voluble on almost any topic, emotions flickering transparently on her face. Even those who dislike her - those who see her as a screechy hi-fi, set to a very liberal frequency - agree that she never pretends to be anyone other than who she is. In the past, the quality has been her greatest strength. This year it may well be her greatest liability.

"She's not a remote presence," says Sam Chapman, Boxer's chief of staff and a longtime colleague who has spent 20 years observing the effects of her style. "One of the things you notice is that a lot of people call her 'Barbara.' For many traditional kinds of senators, that would be unheard of. But she really has a relationship with people, and people feel that and believe that they have a personal relationship with her. You really pick that up at events, I think. It's like she's everyone's friend or neighbor."

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