By Blake Neff - 04/07/14 06:00 AM EDT
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) might not have a gold medal, but to him he has something more valuable: a legislative legacy.
“The guys I played with went on to win a gold medal in Seoul … I got a law degree,” Huffman joked to The Hill. “I can’t second guess myself.”
After graduating, Huffman first worked in antitrust law and later became a major public interest attorney. He won several notable victories in cases involving racial and sexual discrimination, including a successful lawsuit against the California State University system forcing it to comply with Title IX by equalizing men’s and women’s athletic opportunities.
Huffman’s greatest policy passion, however, is the environment, a cause he adopted after reading the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. The book, which argues that overdevelopment of water resources in the American West has caused enormous environmental damage, made Huffman deeply interested in water issues, and drove the young attorney to enter politics.
In 1994, Huffman was elected to the Marin Municipal Water District, a post he would hold for 12 years. He soon moved into environmental law full-time, becoming a leading attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major pro-environment group.
In 2006, Huffman shifted from the courtroom to the statehouse after winning an upset victory in the primary battle to represent California’s 6th District in the State Assembly. His campaign focused heavily on environmental issues such as climate change, with Huffman saying that “without hyperbole, we may have 10 years to save the planet.”
With assemblymen then limited to six years in office, Huffman rose quickly and was a highly active legislator. He chaired the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee and passed more than 40 pieces of legislation on eclectic matters such as promoting paint recycling and banning the possession or sale of shark fins.
Huffman is proudest, however, of his laws regarding energy efficiency. He successfully passed the nation’s largest solar water-heating incentive program and in 2007 pushed through a bill phasing out incandescent light bulbs in California. Both bills are framed in Huffman’s office, and the light bulb law helped inspire similar federal regulations, which have ignited political battles in Washington, D.C.
“It was a great law, and I’m very proud of it,” Huffman said. “We have absolutely transformed the variety and cost of products available to consumers in some fantastic ways. The fact that you have $6-$7 LED light bulbs that will last well over a decade and consume much less energy than the old incandescent bulb, is attributable to these standards.”
After six years in the assembly, Huffman was forced out by term limits, but an opportunity fell into his lap when 2nd Congressional District Representative Lynn Woolsey (D) chose to retire before the 2012 election. Huffman immediately ran to replace her.
During the primary campaign, Huffman drew attention when he performed live alongside Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart at a campaign event, playing guitar and singing Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am A Patriot.”
“[I was] absolutely terrified,” he said with a laugh. Huffman played guitar privately, but had little experience playing publicly. “There’s no greater risk a politician can take than performing music in front of a crowd of supporters.”
Huffman survived the performance and went on to win California’s jungle primary by more than 20 percent. In the general election, he crushed Republican Daniel Roberts, winning nearly three quarters of all the votes cast.
In Congress, Huffman serves on the Natural Resources Committee and continues to make environmental issues a top priority, though he admits he has far less ability to set the agenda now.
“As a minority in Congress, I think you have to take your opportunities where you find them,” he said. One such opportunity, he believes, is on matters of energy efficiency. Huffman has introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Postal Service to slash petroleum usage by 2 percent annually for 10 years.
“[We could] save the Postal Service hundreds of millions of dollars a year by replacing these aging and inefficient clunkers they’ve been driving since the 1980s,” said Huffman. “[Efficiency] used to be a concept with broad bipartisan appeal, and I hope it still is.”
Another measure Huffman believes could win bipartisan support is an effort to limit illegal marijuana growth on public lands, which he says is severely harmful to the environment. His bill to crack down on the practice has drawn two Republican co-sponsors, Reps. Doug LaMalfa (Calif.) and Doug Lamborn (Colo.).
Huffman confesses that legislating is a far tougher slog in Washington than it was in Sacramento.
“I was in the majority in a term-limited system where I was quickly in a position of significant influence,” Huffman said in explanation of his enormous productivity in California. With no term limits, more than 400 colleagues, and a Republican majority, Huffman must fight far harder to be heard.
“The iron-fisted rule of the Republican majority … almost completely shuts out the Democrats from the process,” he said.
Huffman, however, is not willing to give up the fight anytime soon. He is only 50, and says he is willing to serve “as long as the people of the North Coast will have me.”
“I want to get things done, and I understand that one part of getting things done around here is continuing to show up, establish yourself, and gain your seniority, and I intend to do that.”