WASHINGTON — According to conventional wisdom, there's no surer way for a young congressman to destroy his career than delving into foreign policy. Voters don't care about it, the old hands say, and time spent on what's happening overseas is time squandered.
Democrat Adam Schiff may be the exception that proves the rule. Now in his third term, the Burbank congressman seems to spend more time on foreign affairs every year. Yet in each of his two reelection campaigns, he's held on to more than 60% of the vote.
Indeed, focusing on a foreign policy issue helped Schiff win his seat in 2000, defeating Republican incumbent James Rogan in what is still the most expensive House race ever. Since then, he has maintained and extended his interest, without apparent political cost.
To be sure, the foreign policy issue that Schiff rode to his first victory is one with exceptional appeal in his particular district — the charge that, between 1915 and 1923, rulers of the Ottoman Empire carried out a campaign of extermination that claimed about 1.6 million Armenian lives. California's 29th Congressional District is home to more Armenian American voters than any other in the state, and they have pressed to have the episode officially branded as genocide.
The present-day Turkish government denies genocide occurred, saying Armenian fatalities stemmed from attempts to quell civil unrest.
Using parliamentary maneuvers he honed in Los Angeles as a prosecutor and in Sacramento as a state senator, Schiff has rescued the issue from defeat at the hands of a Republican majority.
On June 8, he won a major concession from House leaders, who agreed for the first time in five years to vote on a bill in committee recognizing the genocide. Schiff won that pledge by attempting to amend the State Department authorization bill in two ways — one seeking a historic study of how genocide could be prevented and another seeking diplomacy to get Turkey to stop blockading another Council of Europe country, Armenia.
That prompted frantic efforts by Turkey's lobbyists — who include former House Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.) — to cut a deal that would avoid embarrassing the Turkish prime minister, who was visiting Washington that day and paid a call on President Bush on June 10.
The play to an Armenian audience was one of the focal points of the 2000 congressional campaign in California's 29th District. Rogan took to punctuating his stump speeches with cries of Getzeh Hayeruh — "Long Live Armenia."
Schiff raised the ante by delivering a whole speech in Armenian, one syllable at a time.
Between them, the two candidates spent an estimated $15 million on the campaign. Schiff won with 53% of the vote. Ever since, he has taken the lead in the fight for recognition of the Armenian genocide and made himself a prominent Democratic voice on foreign affairs.
For years the Armenian issue has languished in Congress, stymied by vehement Turkish opposition and by the reluctance of American presidents to antagonize an important ally.
That hasn't stopped Schiff.
Last year, he spent hours in the parliamentarian's office crafting an amendment to the foreign aid bill that would pass parliamentary muster. The gambit worked — up to a point. The House voted to bar Turkey from using foreign aid funds to lobby against recognition of the genocide, which Armenian advocates took to be tacit recognition of their claim.
But then, under administration pressure not to upset Turkey, Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) made sure the provision was removed early in the process. This year, Schiff capitalized on current strains between Washington and Turkey, which did not allow U.S. troops to cross its territory to invade Iraq.
More recently, American officials have chafed at Turkey's reluctance to let American military operations expand at Incirlik Air Base.
Schiff saw hopeful signs in February, when the U.S. ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, openly used the term genocide in a speech at UC Berkeley, and added "I think we, the U.S. government, owe fellow citizens a more frank and honest way of discussing this problem."
Schiff, born in Framingham, Mass., is the son of a Jewish clothing salesman who moved to California when Schiff was 9. His father is a Democrat and his mother is a Republican. "Maybe that's why I'm a moderate," he says.
Schiff ran for the Assembly in 1994 against Rogan and lost. But two years later he won a state Senate seat. He rose to chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and developed a reputation for thoughtful tenacity.
Though not a flamboyant personality — staffers joke about his lack of charisma — Schiff has continued to build a reputation as a skillful tactician, even as a Democrat in a Republican world.
Since House Republican leaders take an uncompromising attitude toward the Democratic minority, Schiff often can do little more than seek modifications to Republican bills. And he can sometimes needle GOP colleagues into what he sees as more balanced action.
In one Judiciary subcommittee, the chairman called five hearings on gay marriage. Schiff, outraged that the subcommittee did not hold a single hearing on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, said, "Mr. Chairman, I don't think we should stop at five hearings. I know there are issues we could discuss like Abu Ghraib, but honestly I think we need more hearings on gay marriage."
The chairman called no further hearings on gay marriage.
Potentially more important than such skirmishing, Schiff is trying to help Democrats develop a longer-term vision on foreign affairs. He frequently appears on television defending Democratic positions against conservatives.
"When Fox News asks me how much credit Bush should get, I say that the spread of democracy has been a core Democratic value since Woodrow Wilson," Schiff said.
Schiff is carving out a position as a leader of a centrist Democratic national security bloc, a group he calls — in a deliberate parody of right-wing neo-conservatives — the neo-progressives.
He has organized a national security caucus and led efforts to prevent scientists from the former Soviet Union from spreading nuclear and biological secrets. "He's really emerging as one of the key leaders in the House on national security," said Will Marshall, who heads the moderate Democratic Leadership Forum.
"For a long time, particularly in the House, it has been a little lonely to be a Democrat who specializes in security. Members too often regarded it as the other party's issue. Adam sincerely believes the Democratic Party has to reassert its leadership on national security."
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Adam Schiff's wife's name is Eve. She apparently is not as amused by the coincidence as he is and resisted various Garden of Eden suggestions for their children's names, Alexa and Elijah.
At Stanford, Schiff majored in political science and pre-med. Accepted by medical and law schools, he chose Harvard Law, calculating that it would be a better launching pad to public service.
He clerked for a federal judge and spent six years in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
At a park in Glendale, longtime Armenian backgammon players were shocked when Schiff challenged them to a game and won. It's a game he first played in junior high school.
As a California state senator, Schiff, a consistent supporter of the state's Armenian genocide resolution, won state funds for a documentary film on the subject. In Congress, when he arranged for a screening, one of the speakers told the crowd he wished "genocide deniers" had seen the film. From deep in the audience a voice rang out, "Oh, we're here, congressman, we're here."