Anthony Beilenson, a California Democrat who spent 10 terms in Congress, where he forged an independent path on thorny issues such as tax cuts and immigration and even anodyne matters such as National Grandparents Day, died March 5 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.
The cause was a heart attack, said a son, Peter Beilenson. The congressman also had a home in Chevy Chase, Md.
Mr. Beilenson was a Harvard-educated lawyer from the New York outskirts who settled in Southern California in the late 1950s to work for a cousin’s entertainment law firm. His ambition was to enter politics, and he attributed his civic awakening to a lecture at Harvard where then-Rep. Helen Gahagan Douglas (D-Calif.) spoke about the plight of migrant farm workers.
“You are in a position to help a lot of people when you are in public office,” he later told the Los Angeles Times.
The lanky and bespectacled Mr. Beilenson was elected to the state Assembly in 1962 and the state Senate four years later. He was credited with writing more than 200 state laws, including major consumer and environmental legislation.
In 1967, he introduced a bill, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan (R), that decriminalized abortion in cases where the mother’s mental or physical health was gravely imperiled. It was the first liberalization of the state’s abortion laws in a generation.
The Sacramento media corps named Mr. Beilenson “best all-around senator,” and his peers dubbed him “most effective senator.” He parlayed the attention to national office, winning an open U.S. House seat in 1976 that represented Beverly Hills, Westwood, Bel Air, Malibu, Pacific Palisades, Thousand Oaks and parts of the San Fernando Valley — one of the wealthiest districts in the country.
In Washington, he was a workhorse on the powerful House Rules Committee, which decides which bills reach the floor. He also chaired the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, where he sought to curb the sprawling intelligence budget in the waning years of the Cold War and advocated reductions in covert aid to proxy war hot spots such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan.
His voting pattern was consistently left of center on abortion rights, gun-control measures and conservation. He voted against oil drilling off the California coast and worked to protect the endangered African elephant by restricting U.S. imports of elephant ivory. He was legislative co-sponsor of an act to establish the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which preserved a sprawling patchwork of land in greater Los Angeles.
But Mr. Beilenson also had a maverick streak, and he defied easy categorization from those who sought to define him as a liberal.
He became known for his expertise on the federal budget and advocated — sometimes combatively — for tax increases over borrowing to address the swelling budget deficit, even if it meant cutting spending for veterans and the elderly. He once shouted down an impassioned constituent who took issue with his views on the deficit.
He generally opposed capital punishment but voted in favor of it during a debate on a drug bill in 1986, saying he could favor it for “drug salesmen who act above the law and are comfortably ensconced making millions of dollars.”
“I have moral problems with the death penalty,” he added, “but I’m not a purist.”
He initially backed a hard-line proposal in the mid-1990s that would have denied automatic citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. He supported the measure in part because of what he called enormous welfare, food stamp and Medicaid costs associated with immigration.
He also supported cuts in legal immigration because of his larger concerns about population growth, competition for jobs and changes to “quality of life” in the United States. He did not back another measure that sought to deny public schooling for children of illegal immigrants.
Mr. Beilenson, a longtime civil rights supporter, was accused by Latino groups of toughening his views to appeal to an influx of conservative voters in his district, which was redrawn in 1990. He denied the charge and spent his final years in Congress voting in unpredictable ways. He was an ardent ally of the North American Free Trade Agreement, despite opposition from many labor groups that traditionally support Democrats.
Mr. Beilenson was so safely ensconced in his district that he rarely spent much if any money on reelection. He was one of a handful of politicians who refused to accept political action committee funds. He told the Times that he found the extremes other politicians went to to collect money were “distasteful and very unpleasant.”
Anthony Charles Beilenson was born in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Oct. 26, 1932. His parents started a book publishing company, Peter Pauper Press.
He graduated in 1950 from the private Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and received a bachelor’s degree in American government from Harvard University in 1954. He completed Harvard Law School in 1957.
In 1959, he married Dolores Martin. In addition to his wife, survivors include his children, Peter, of Towson, Md., Dayna Berger of Atlanta and Adam Beilenson of Encino, Calif.; a brother; a sister; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Beilenson declined to run for reelection in 1996, citing an “ideological and often mindless” atmosphere of bilious partisanship after the GOP took control of the House after the 1994 midterm elections.
He served on a congressionally appointed commission involving nonproliferation issues and on the board of the National Portrait Gallery and the advisory council of J Street, a moderate Jewish advocacy group.
Mr. Beilenson’s votes of conscience on foreign and domestic affairs were sometimes fodder for opponents. Even members of his family said he could take the notion of a principled legislator to extremes, as when his was one of eight dissenting votes cast against National Grandparents Day in 1978 because he saw it as a sop to the greeting-card industry.
Such unorthodox decisions barely seemed to dent his popularity. Members of Congress, he told the Times in 1987, “all got here on our own so we don’t owe anything to the party. You’re secure as long as you’re not outrageous.”
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