Meet Bob Blumenfield: The accidental politician

In a world of political neophytes, Bob Blumenfield exudes political competence. As a former staffer for Rep. Howard Berman, D-Los Angeles, and as the former right hand for Joe Edmiston, one of the state’s savviest bureaucrats, Blumenfield has an insider’s knowledge of how to pull the levers of political power.

While Blumenfield has become a shining light among the Assembly’s freshman class, there is a reassuring amount of perspective that is uncommon among so many politicians. Blumenfield is clearly ambitious, but in talking to the 41-year-old father of two (including a two-month old daughter), there is an inner calm about him that indicates that while he loves his work, he doesn’t need public office the way many elected officials do.

Then again, this New York transplant represents the San Fernando Valley, and has his own background in show business. So it could be that he’s just become one hell of an actor.

Blumenfield’s political resume dates back to his Westchester County, New York youth, when he ran around Democratic National Conventions as a member of Children’s Express, reporting from the convention floor. Educated at Duke university, Blumenfield said he thought he would become a journalist. He worked with documentary master Ken Burns on the Civil War documentary for PBS, and was working on a project with ABC’s Ted Koppel on political leadership in the late 1980s, when something changed.

“The project fell through, and I found myself in Washington, so I decided to study leadership from the inside,” he says.

So, in 1989, Blumenfield signed on with New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. From there, he was hired away by Berman, the man who would become one of Blumenfield’s political mentors.

“I kept thinking I was going to leave Washington, and then this great opportunity came up to be Congressman Berman’s designee on the budget committee,” he said. “So I became his legislative director until 1996. I wanted to get out of Congressional politics, and I didn’t want to become a lobbyist.”

Blumenfield moved West to work on the Clinton/Gore coordinated campaign in 1996, and to pursue other interests.
“I had written a TV show about young people working in Washington and that was starting to get some play,” he said. “That was another reason to move.”

We know what you’re thinking – a show about young people in Washington in 1996. Was Blumenfield really the brains behind one of TV’s most iconic TV shows?

Not exactly.

“I had sold the option and had an agent and rode the whole Hollywood rollercoaster,” he said. “They had penned the long-term contract – the one where you get a little money up front and if it goes into syndication, you get a house in Malibu and a trophy wife and the whole thing. Then West Wing came and crushed it.”

Blumenfield did get his house in Malibu, but it wasn’t quite the way he planned. While pursuing his Hollywood dreams, he had gone to work for Edmiston at the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.

“Joe’s very persuasive,” Blumenfield says. “He said, ‘You can still do all your crazy Hollywood stuff on the side. You can live in a house in Malibu that we’re flipping over to the Feds. We can’t pay you very much, but it sounds like that’s not your motivation right now.’”

Blumenfield bit.

“I thought, it sounds perfect. I can have a real job and do all the other stuff,”he said.

But after the “other stuff” fell by the wayside, Blumenfield continued on at the conservancy, where he nurtured his interest in the environment, and continued his political education.

“One of the things that Joe taught me is how to take a project out of whole cloth that has no funding and leverage state money against federal money against local money against private money. You put it altogether and all of a sudden you’ve got a huge project.”

Blumenfield says his time at the conservancy helped him develop his approach to politics as well.  “Joe is incredibly astute and thank god he’s on the side of the angels. I wouldn’t want to face him on the other side,” he says. “But they are practical environmentalists. You have to be centered on what you believe, but if you’re going to be effective you have to know how to compromise.”

In 2000, Blumenfield’s old boss came calling, and he went back to work for Berman as  chief of staff in his San Fernando Valley district office.

Those Berman connections helped Blumenfield line up powerful support during his 2008 campaign. Latino leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Vilalraigosa and Sen. Alex Padilla backed his campaign, as well as people Blumenfield met during his time working for Berman.

But when he arrived in Sacramento, Blumenfield, like so many other new lawmakers, was startled at the way state government operates.

“I don’t know quite how to say it, or how much I should say, but it was a lot to swallow,” he says. “I was shocked by the dysfunction and the way the process worked.”

Ultimately, he decided to vote for the December and February budgets, “because I think the world of (Assembly Speaker) Karen (Bass). We share values, and that helped me swallow what was going on.”

Despite those unpleasant first few months, Blumenfield remains optimistic. He points to his time in Washington nearly 20 years ago “when it was all gloom and doom. We went from record deficits to record surpluses in less than a year, so that’s often on my mind when I think about where we are now. Obviously, the federal government has different tools, but that experience has helped in the darkest days of this budget crisis to say, OK, I’ve seen this before. I know we can get through this if we come up with something creative.”

Blumenfield says he would like to see a number of changes to state government – from altering term limits to getting rid of the two-thirds budget vote requirement. “The way it is now, state government works despite the institution, not because of it.”
And he is optimistic that some things could change. “Even though I’m new up here, I have roots in Sacramento. Hearing all the stories from Berman and (Rep. Henry) Waxman and how things used to be, I have a sense of the history, but I’m not part of the cultural institution that is here. I like to think I don’t have the cultural baggage to think that things have to work the way they work because that’s how they’ve always worked.”

In the meantime, Blumenfield says he is trying to abide by some advice handed down through Willie Brown by former Assemblyman Robert Hertzberg, who once held Blumenfield’s seat.

“He said, just shut the F up for the first six months, and I think there’s something to that,” Bluemfield said.” To be effective you really have to learn the process and I’m systematically trying to do that.”

And like many other freshman, Blumenfield is hopeful that this freshman class may be willing to make some of those institutional changes. “We seem to get along pretty well as a bipartisan group, and we’re all looking for ways to make this place run better and be more effective.”

On the policy front, Blumenfield’s 21-bill legislative package reflects his environmental background. And his background on federal transportation issues led Bass to tap him as the chairman of t
he budget subcommittee on transportation.

“I want to help move us as fast as we can toward a green economy,” he says. “I think there is an incredible opportunity for us to make that transition.”

His bills include incentives to install solar panels (AB 1027), expand recycling programs (AB 473) and increase water efficiency (AB 474).

But Blumenfield could soon find himself at the center of a very complicated political puzzle. For years, there has been talk of a Latino congressional district in the Valley – talk that almost cost Berman his Congressional seat ten years ago.

With another redraw on the horizon, Blumenfield is keenly aware of the political stakes. “Right now, California is in real danger of losing a Congressional seat,” he says. “There is a tension developing and it’s not because of the personalities, it’s because of demographics. LA is growing, but not as fast as other areas, like the Central Valley.”

Under Proposition 11, the Legislature will still draw Congressional boundaries, which could make Blumenfield a very popular man among California’s Congressional delegation. He knows how sensitive an issue redistricting is. “A butterfly can flap its wings in the Central Valley, and it changes a district in the San Fernando Valley,” he says. “But I think a way will open up to keep everyone happy.”
Could that mean a Congressional seat that could bring Blumenfield back to Washington?

“I love the stuff on the federal level. That would be a wonderful thing if I ever got a chance to go back to Congress,” he says. “But I’m not on an A-Z path. My life is not dependent on being in public office. If the stars don’t align, I’m not going to cry in my soup.”

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