Can a Latino progressive take down Dianne Feinstein?

Bucking Democratic orthodoxy, and the odds, Kevin de León takes on a Beltway legend from the left

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published October 29, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Kevin de Leon (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)
Kevin de Leon (AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

A few weeks ago, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California shocked a friendly audience, as well as Democrats nationwide, by advising “patience” with Donald Trump, and saying that “he can be a good president” if  “he can learn and change.” California State Senate leader Kevin de León was among the leading voice speaking out in response, saying, “It is the responsibility of Congress to hold him accountable — especially Democrats — not [to] be complicit in his reckless behavior.” De León went on to talk about people who cannot afford to be patient with Trump.

“I don't think children who breathe dirty air can afford patience. The LGBT worker or woman losing their rights by the day or the black student who could be assaulted on the street -- they can't afford patience. DREAMers who are unsure of their fate in this country can't afford patience. Even a Trump voter who is still out of work can't afford to be patient,” de León said. “We don't have much patience for Donald Trump here in California.”

A month and a half later, after Feinstein announced her plans to run for a fifth Senate term in 2018, de León declared he would challenge her in the Democratic primary. It will be Feinstein’s first serious challenge from the left in her 25-year Senate career. But de León didn’t say a word about her. Instead, he talked about his mother.

“I'm the youngest child of a single immigrant mother." That's how his campaign announcement video begins. "This was a woman who worked her fingers to the bone, she put the clothes on my back,” de León recalled. He owed her a debt, he said, “and millions like her… who do everything within their power to protect their children … to provide real opportunities, so everyone can succeed. That's what the country really wants.” It’s a very personalized, yet also a universal message: “It doesn't make a difference if it’s a Latino, African-American, if it's a white, if it's Asian-American, if it's a racially mixed community, poverty is poverty.” 

By the time de León announced, a FiveThirtyEight article had already noted that “Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat May No Longer Be a Sure Thing.” The danger definitely won't come from Republicans, who are so diminished in California they barely play a role in statewide politics. The Hill has since reported that most of California’s congressional Democrats have stayed silent so far, faced with a choice between a long-serving party icon and a rising Latino star with appeal on the progressive left. 

Only one of the 13 California members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has endorsed Feinstein so far, conservative Blue Dog Jim Costa, and several Democratic aides said the CHC’s campaign arm, Bold PAC, is likely to endorse de León. He became the first Latino to lead the California Senate in 130 years, and would be California’s first Latino U.S. senator ever. So there's a lot more going on here than "be patient with Trump," although that incident still serves as an illuminating watershed moment in the unfolding story of the 2018 midterms and the Democratic Party's attempt to rebuild.

Although Feinstein is a well-respected figure in Washington, known for bipartisan comity and back-room dealmaking, Harold Meyerson explained in the American Prospect that she has long been out of step with her own party in her own state. “Feinstein hasn’t outlived her moment because her moment — her time in sync with her fellow California Democrats — never actually existed," he wrote. "In her 25 years in the Senate, she has always stood well to the right of the Golden State’s other elected Democrats, not to mention its Democratic voters.” The Trump incident in late August brought all that long history into focus, perhaps opening the door to the alternative future that de León eloquently represents.

Feinstein was being interviewed in an establishment stronghold, the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, by an establishment insider, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a corporate-style Democrat often reviled by the grassroots, who had once been Feinstein’s campaign chair. But the senator's statement still shocked the crowd, “which reacted with stunned silence punctuated by quiet exclamations, scattered boos and nervous laughter,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle.  

“I think we have to have some patience. I do,” Feinstein told Tauscher. “It’s eight months into the tenure of the presidency … We’ll have to see if he can forget himself and his feeling about himself enough to be able to really have the kind of empathy and the kind of direction that this country needs. I just hope he has the ability to learn and to change, and if he does, he can be a good president, and that's my hope."

Such talk about Trump forgetting himself or developing empathy, while it fits Feinstein's bipartisan, non-confrontational brand, is wildly at odds with everything we know about this president and his personal history, still less what mental health experts have to say on the subject. To many listeners, the hope that Trump “has the ability to learn and to change” bordered on the delusional. As for the politics of the moment, why Feinstein would say that out loud in a state Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by 30 percentage points is anyone's guess.

Throughout her career, Feinstein has touted herself as a pragmatic realist, and she did so in explaining herself this time as well. “I have to be able to get things done," she said. "I don’t know that you would want somebody who can’t get a bill passed and signed. So for those of us who put things together, you have to work with people, and a punch in the nose isn’t going to do it.” But asking voters to be patient with Trump as he hypothetically grows into the job is a long way from realism. If California voters come to see that Feinstein's version of reality is disappearing in the rear-view mirror,  the main argument she has always relied on may ultimately be turned against her.

As Meyerson put it, de León criticized Feinstein's Commonwealth Club comments “not just for her deficiency of realism but for her normalization of evil.” The latter weakness is arguably far more serious in the Trump era. De León himself is much more in line with how Californians think realistically today — and not just Democrats. Donald Trump, after all, failed to win even the traditional Republican strongholds of Southern California, such as Orange County, San Diego County and the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles. And de León in fact yields nothing to Feinstein on the terrain of problem-solving. He has been a highly effective legislator in the State Senate, authoring or sponsoring bipartisan bills on climate change, clean energy, infrastructure rebuilding, public education and other issues, as shown in this passage from his campaign website:

It would be unrealistic to expect de León to be as effective as a newcomer in Washington as he has been in Sacramento. But Feinstein cannot possibly argue that he doesn’t understand what it takes, or that he lacks the capacity or the will to get things done. He’s done far more as a state senator than Barack Obama had done in Illinois when he made the same jump in 2004. Like Obama, de León made the jump from activist organizer to elected lawmaker, but de León's activist work was around a historic issue that reshaped California politics.

In 1994, at age 28, de León "helped organize the massive Latino immigrant demonstration in opposition to the anti-immigrant Proposition 187,” as Meyerson puts it. That organizing effort galvanized Latino voters in California, and set the stage for the state's transformation from closely divided swing state to the deepest of deep blue. Sending him to Washington would represent the symbolic fulfillment of that process. 

Is it realistic that he could defeat one of the U.S. Senate's most prominent figures? That may be another matter. Purely on policy grounds, Meyerson’s criticism of Feinstein is widely echoed. The FiveThirtyEight analysis put it even more sharply. “Feinstein is feeling the heat in part because her more liberal constituents are correct in surmising that she is more conservative — relative to the politics of the state she represents — than other Democrats," wrote Clare Malone. Feinstein has voted in support of Trump’s agenda 31 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight's numbers. A large majority of Feinstein's constituents would likely prefer that number were zero.

In contrast, de León has a strong record on both traditional Democratic causes -- environmental protection, public transit, women's rights and immigrants' rights -- and also favors Bernie Sanders-style progressive policies. He has advanced landmark legislation on several fronts: a $15 minimum wage, a requirement that California generate half its electricity from renewables by 2030 (with a goal of 100 percent by 2045) and an ambitious single-payer health care bill — although that one has been put on hold in the State Assembly.

De León has also pursued innovative legislation that is less charismatic but still vitally important, such as strengthening wage-theft laws. Another example is SB 1275, a rebate initiative to make electric cars more accessible to working families, with the goal of placing 1 million low-emission vehicles on the road. A third example, SB 535, sought to address the disproportionate impact of climate change and pollution in disadvantaged communities by requiring California to spend at least 25 percent of its cap-and-trade revenues to benefit low-income communities.

In short, any analysis of Democratic or progressive policy goals strongly favors de León. But now we come to political and philosophical questions: Should Democrats, even in the most liberal state in the country, expend time and effort attacking one of their own? In the New Republic, Graham Vyse has made the case that the reward outweighs the risk. He noted Bill Scher’s argument at Politico magazine that progressives seem to be mirroring Steve Bannon’s threatened ideological purge of untrustworthy Republican senators. “Bannon and his allies want to remake the Republican Party into a vehicle of economic nationalism,” Scher wrote. “Progressive activists want a Democratic Party that more closely resembles Bernie Sanders’ brand of democratic socialism.”

Yes, progressives want the party to move left, Vyse acknowledged, “but that doesn’t mean they intend to adopt Bannonite tactics to accomplish it.” He quotes Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, who both deny any wider plan to primary moderate Democrats. Feinstein may be a special case.

Indeed, when Democracy for America endorsed de León, the group made clear it had not endorsed any other Senate primary challengers for 2018. Its previous endorsements were of Sanders, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, all incumbents. (In fairness, all are known as progressives and none is likely to face a significant primary challenger.)

DFA polled its 300,000 members in California, and “found that 63% of respondents want a progressive leader to challenge Senator Feinstein.” Vyse goes on to echo Meyerson’s point:

Rather than a harbinger of a purge, Feinstein is a special case because her politics have become so out of step with her constituents and even Democrats nationally. “I support Nancy Pelosi and Kamala Harris, and I don’t support Dianne Feinstein,” said Congressman Ro Khanna, a fellow California Democrat who has been advocating for a Feinstein challenge. “I think there are very specific reasons that a primary challenge to Dianne Feinstein in California is called for.”

Before de León entered the race, Khanna (who is viewed as the unofficial leader of the California congressional delegation's progressive faction) wrote a Sacramento Bee op-ed calling for such a challenge. “If the 2016 election taught us anything, it is that voters are looking for new ideas, new leadership and a new beginning to our politics,” he wrote. “In an era of unprecedented change, voters want leaders who understand the complex challenges of the 21st century economy. ... At stake are the fundamental values of what defines us as Californians and Americans. On the big questions of this new century, Feinstein has been wrong.” He went on to cite a litany of examples, starting with the Iraq War and the Patriot Act, before turning to her lack of leadership on income inequality, citing a string of issues on which de León has led.

Khanna actually offered two bigger names ahead of de León, writing that either Rep. Barbara Lee or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich “would be extraordinary senators.” But as soon as de León did announce, Khanna endorsed him.

A more credible political argument against a primary challenge to Feinstein is that such a race would draw both financial resources and media attention away from other contests, especially those crucial to winning Democratic control of the House. It’s an argument that Scher makes in Politico, but that Sroka told Vyse “is utter bullshit.” He continued, “It tends to think of money and fundraising as a zero-sum game. It isn’t zero-sum." Sometimes liberal donors may need "to dig a little bit deeper to support a Kevin de León," Sroka said, "as well as supporting their local congressman who they may not agree with on everything but [they] know needs to defeat a Republican.”

It’s another intra-party dispute in which one side argues that Democrats can walk and chew gum at the same time, while the other assumes they cannot. This also applies to the next argument Vyse considers — that whether de León wins or loses, his presence in the race could help defeat down-ballot Republicans by energizing progressives and driving up Democratic turnout. There are seven GOP congressmembers in California districts that Hillary Clinton won, all of which are considered prime targets for Democratic pickups.

With California’s relatively new top-two primary system, it's entirely possible that Feinstein and de León could wind up facing each other twice, first in the primary and then in the general election. It's already happened once, in the 2016 Senate race between Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez (who both received more primary votes than the leading Republican). In any event, there's a distinct possibility that Democratic turnout could exceed expectations, while Republican turnout tanks. De León’s candidacy only makes that more likely.

In another interesting piece at the New Republic, David Dayen argues that between those who argue against a primary challenge (because of limited resources) and those arguing in favor of one (because it might raise turnout), neither point is strongly supported by data. On one hand, the 2006 Senate primary battle between Joe Lieberman and Ned Lamont in Connecticut didn’t crimp the Democrats' wave election that year, which included picking up two House seats in that state. On the other hand, Dayen writes, Californians already had a chance to elect a Latina senator, and Loretta Sanchez "didn’t even beat Kamala Harris among Latinos [in 2016]; any boost in turnout would be hard to separate from the wave of anti-Trump sentiment in the state.”

But de León’s potential to motivate and galvanize new voters is only partly about his ethnicity: He represents a synergy of youth, race, class and cutting-edge progressive politics that could create a much greater spill-over effect.

Dayen argues that this primary election will have significance far beyond California, and could have national implications for would-be 2020 presidential candidates:

Progressives are likely to make the Feinstein–de León race into a litmus test, as well they should. Feinstein is clearly too conservative to represent one of the nation’s most liberal states. If Democrats who want to lead the party end up siding with her, they do so at their peril.

Sen. Kamala Harris, for instance, apparently felt she had no choice but to endorse her senior colleague. We'll see whether she regrets it later. Even as a rank outsider, Kevin de León now finds himself on the national stage, with a chance to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction. He is likely to attract small-donor progressives from all over the country, and his presence in the race will surely compel Feinstein to be tougher on Trump than she otherwise would be. The longer you look at this primary race between two Democrats of different eras in the nation's largest and most diverse state, the bigger it gets. 


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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