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Column: Who needs passion or drama? Adam Schiff tries bland and steady in California U.S. Senate race

Adam Schiff seen from the chest up in a traditional Chinese jacket, waving, a pagoda in the background
Adam B. Schiff has been the pacesetter in California’s U.S. Senate race, leading in fundraising, polls and marquee endorsements. His slow-and-steady mien contrasts with that of his more fiery Democratic rivals, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
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Adam B. Schiff stepped from a white Porsche Carrera, laced his brown walking shoes and headed down Hill Street in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.

He beelined toward the sidewalk, over a bright carpet of confetti, and extended his hand, calling out, “Happy New Year!” to smiling revelers gathered for the city’s annual Golden Dragon Parade.

Suddenly, a man in a hot-pink hoodie was upon Schiff, filming with a smartphone and refusing his outstretched palm. “I wouldn’t shake hands with a Zionist supporter of genocide,” he snarled.

Schiff abruptly zagged across the street, then returned to the waiting sports car. The protester continued shouting about the war in Gaza — “What about the children?” — as the Burbank congressman resumed a slow roll down the parade route, waving to onlookers from the back seat.

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It was a brief disruption in Schiff’s generally smooth glide-path campaign for U.S. Senate.

Schiff — who leads in fundraising, opinion polls and marquee endorsements — has been the pacesetter in the contest for more than a year. The biggest question seems to be whether he can avoid a November faceoff against one of two fellow Democratic lawmakers, Katie Porter or Barbara Lee.

The top four candidates vying to represent California in the U.S. Senate squared off Tuesday for the final debate before the March 5 primary.

Feb. 21, 2024

After the parade, after others hollered from the sidelines for a cease-fire in the Middle East, Schiff responded with characteristic equanimity.

“I completely understand how emotionally charged this issue is,” he told reporters later, in a voice utterly devoid of emotion. “As I always do, I try to have a civil conversation about what’s going on in Gaza, what needs to take place.”

As he eases along the campaign trail, Schiff is the unflappable man, sober and buttoned-down as the starched white shirt he wears beneath a standard-issue uniform of navy-blue suit and muted tie. (For the parade, he doffed his coat for a Tang jacket, a traditional piece of Chinese garb.)

Travels with Adam Schiff — logo

Columnist Mark Z. Barabak joins candidates for various offices as they hit the campaign trail in this momentous election year.

If Porter’s candidacy is about passion and her pledge to be a brawler in Washington, and Lee’s is about presence and being a rare Black woman in the U.S. Senate, Schiff’s is about practicality and getting stuff done.

He talks about the federal funds he’s brought home during 20-plus years in Washington; his work before that on patient rights in Sacramento; and, before that, cracking down on polluters as a federal prosecutor. It’s an implicit distinction he draws with the ambitious promises and more fiery rhetoric of his Democratic rivals, whom he leaves largely unnamed this day, in typical front-runner fashion.

“I have a record of delivering results for California and bringing people together to do it,” Schiff boasted before the parade as he accepted the endorsement of CHIRLA, a statewide immigrant rights group. “It’s a record of effectiveness that I’m proud of and will put up against anyone else in this race.”

Adam Schiff and wife Eve, in traditional Chinese garments, wave from a convertible as a crowd lines the street behind them
Schiff and his wife, Eve, join the Golden Dragon Parade in downtown L.A.’s Chinatown to mark the Lunar New Year — and, of course, to campaign.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

At the endorsement stop in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, Schiff stood ramrod-straight, face set in listening mode, for over an hour.

He was surrounded by a swarm of supporters in aquamarine T-shirts reading “I’m-migrant.” Behind them, a brilliantly colored mural depicted scenes of struggle and protest, including the fight against Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that targeted people who were in the country illegally, and ended up helping sink the Republican Party in California.

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Schiff nodded along as several speakers told their stories — of economic hardship, family separation, legal limbo — in English and Spanish, though he doesn’t speak the latter. When Schiff’s turn came, he pledged to break through the decades-long impasse over immigration reform, which would be a divine-like feat if he managed it, and vowed to be a voice in Washington for the forgotten and dispossessed.

Porter’s name came up only afterward, when a reporter mentioned the Orange County congresswoman.

She has run advertising aimed at boosting a little-known Republican in the Senate race, Eric Early, after sharply criticizing Schiff for doing the same for the GOP front-runner, Steve Garvey. It’s all part of the gamesmanship surrounding the March 5 top-two primary and the fight for second place. Schiff would much prefer to run against a Republican than Porter in November — it would almost certainly guarantee his election.

Asked to comment on her gambit — a query inviting him to attack Porter and accuse her of hypocrisy — Schiff refused to bite.

“She’s entitled to run any kind of campaign she wants,” he said blandly. “We’re running our campaign, and I’m not advising other candidates on how to run theirs.”

Porter’s digital ads argue that little-known GOP attorney Eric Early is the true Republican in the Senate race.

Feb. 17, 2024

Another name that goes largely unmentioned: Donald Trump.

Schiff might have been just another congressman scrapping for money and name recognition had he not led efforts to impeach the rogue president for trying to blackmail Ukraine and to hold him accountable for condoning Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election.

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That, along with Schiff’s censure by House Republicans, made him a hero to millions of Democrats, largely inoculated him against charges that he’s too conservative (or not a real Democrat, as some on the left insist) and, crucially, turned Schiff into a political household name.

Schiff doesn’t have to talk much about the former president. Trump is a constant background presence, as Marco Amezcua can attest.

Amezcua was among those attending the news conference in MacArthur Park. He arrived in California from Mexico at age 12 and remains in the country under the program that allows immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children to avoid deportation. “Parole,” the 35-year-old called it.

The only 2024 statewide electoral contest is for Senate and includes Reps. Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam B. Schiff along with former Dodger Steve Garvey.

Feb. 1, 2024

Though he can’t vote, Amezcua has gone door-to-door as a CHIRLA volunteer in Beverly Hills, the Inland Empire and East Los Angeles, urging Latinos to the polls.

“We talk about candidates,” said Amezcua, who works for a Latino advocacy group when he’s not door-knocking. “We talk about their needs, we talk about who they might think would have a better understanding of their needs. A lot of them point to Adam Schiff,” saying they saw him on TV going after Trump.

It’s a credential Schiff’s Democratic rivals can only envy.

“Being in the spotlight matters,” said Pablo Hernandez, 45, one of several at the parade who yelled out encouragement as Schiff — his choice over Porter or Lee — wended his way through Chinatown to mark the Lunar New Year. “I think the others are kind of small-time.”

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Adam Schiff, in a Chinese jacket, releases confetti into the air from a tube with another man in the street as others watch
Some in the parade crowd were friendlier than others — one detractor called him a “Zionist supporter of genocide” — but Schiff maintained his composure regardless.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Later, appearing on Univision, Schiff mentioned Trump for the first and only time during his campaigning that day, noting Republicans have refused to pass immigration reform — at Trump’s behest — so they can keep using the issue as a bludgeon in the presidential race.

“They have a party leader in Donald Trump who demonizes and villainizes immigrants and casts them all as murderers and rapists, and uses language I haven’t heard since the Nazis or the ’30s,” Schiff said. “It’s shameful.”

The appearance was part of a Senate town hall hosted by the Spanish-language network, featuring the three Democratic hopefuls in separate appearances. Each fielded questions for half an hour, on taxes, crime, homelessness, healthcare and other topics.

Schiff answered with metronomic precision, his delivery polished to a high gloss by years of addressing jurors and holding forth in Congress.

Declarative sentence. Elaboration. Summary.

“A central part of my campaign is the need to bring down the cost of living for Californians,” he began one response, then discussed a windfall-profits tax on oil companies, federal housing policy, tax credits and the effect of corporate mergers on grocery costs before concluding, “I’m completely devoted to doing this and to making the economy work for people again.”

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The U.S. Senate race in California is a monumental clash among Reps. Adam B. Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee along with Steve Garvey. Learn more about them here.

Feb. 12, 2024

When the interview ended, Schiff ventured into a heavily refrigerated spin room set aside for reporters, though few were on hand, and they had little appetite to parse his performance. There were questions about Gaza, Trump, Russia, Ukraine.

As he turned to leave, Schiff looked down. For a glimmer, his lighter side peeked through.

“I still have a mic here,” he noted, reaching for a wire in his jacket pocket. Schiff recollected a scene from the movie “The Naked Gun” when a character unwittingly broadcast his extravagantly long and loud visit to the men’s room, horrifying a room filled with dignitaries and a stunned press corps.

There would be no reenactment. Schiff shucked the microphone and walked off with an impish smile.

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