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Waxman Seat Battle Quickly Takes Shape

Battle lines are being drawn in the Democratic duel to replace retiring Rep. Henry A. Waxman in his highly coveted coastal California district.

Former Los Angeles City Controller Wendy Greuel and state Sen. Ted Lieu have staked out the earliest positions as the leading contenders. As the only two Democrats in the race so far, each has scrambled to line up endorsements and divide the congressional delegation.

Nearly two weeks since announcing his retirement, all eyes remain fixated on whether Waxman will endorse a successor in the increasingly heated face-off. The seat in this heavily Democratic district is opening for the first time in four decades, the latest addition to an onslaught of turnover in the state’s aging delegation.

“Waxman’s endorsement would be huge,” said Democratic consultant Parke Skelton, who helped run Rep. Brad Sherman’s 2012 campaign, the most heated of the intraparty contests last cycle. “My instinct is he will stay out of it. … Ultimately, I think it’s about geography.”

Greuel, who has put together a campaign team with presidential experience, went into last weekend with the support of former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, state Attorney General Kamala Harris and EMILY’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. Then Lieu emerged from the weekend with an overwhelming victory at the party’s pre-endorsement conference, a signal that he could receive the state party’s endorsement.

Greuel, a former DreamWorks executive, has also rolled out numerous endorsements from local elected officials and members of Congress, including Golden State Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard and Tony Cárdenas. Lieu has the support of state Speaker John Pérez, as well as Reps. Alan Lowenthal, Karen Bass and Maxine Waters.

Still, local Democratic operatives say no endorsement would prove as valuable as a nod from Waxman himself, whose 40-year reign over the Los Angeles political apparatus gives him immense sway among voters there.

A source close to the outgoing congressman said he has not yet decided whether to endorse. If Waxman doesn’t weigh in, Democratic operatives say the contest is likely to be a chaotic sprint that will come down to the geography of the district, which spans the Los Angeles coastline.

The 33rd District starts on the north along the coastline west of Malibu and stretches east to include the wealthy areas of Calabasas and Beverly Hills. It stretches south to take in Santa Monica and Venice, before straddling the beach west of Los Angeles International Airport, heading to the beach towns of Torrance and Rancho Palos Verdes at the southern tip.

The candidates hail from opposite poles of the district. Lieu lives in Torrance. Greuel lives in Studio City, just outside of the northeast edge. A campaign spokesman said Monday she intends to move a mile or so to reside within the district.

The state Senate district Lieu was first elected to in an early 2011 special includes about 80 percent of the congressional district. Meanwhile, after being elected twice to a city council district in the San Fernando Valley, just north of the 33rd, Greuel won a citywide race for controller and then ran unsuccessfully in a high-profile mayoral race last fall.

“Wendy has one thing that Ted doesn’t have, and that is a lot of name ID,” said Eric Bauman, chairman of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party. “Virtually every voter in this district heard commercials, millions of dollars of commercials, that mentioned Wendy — for better or for worse.”

In a sign of his legislative connections, Lieu received more than 70 percent of the vote of delegates in the Feb. 8 pre-endorsement event, which kicks his potential endorsement to an up-or-down vote at the state party’s gathering next month. If he’s endorsed, it would provide a cue to Democratic voters and a bump for Lieu.

To be sure, other candidates could jump into the race. Candidates have until March 7 to file the necessary federal paperwork to run for the seat.

On Monday, Elan S. Carr, a military veteran, Los Angeles County deputy district attorney and head of Alpha Epsilon Pi — an international Jewish fraternity — became the first Republican to enter the race. Two independents, documentary producer Brent Roske and author Marianne Williamson, announced bids prior to Waxman’s retirement.

The primary, in which the top two vote recipients regardless of party advance to the general election, will take place June 3.

California’s 33rd District is rated a Safe Democrat contest by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. President Barack Obama carried the district by a 24-point margin in 2012.