State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León formally unveiled his daring challenge to Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Sunday, setting up a generational confrontation over the direction of the Democratic Party between one of California’s political stalwarts and the little-known Los Angeles lawmaker.
De León made his plans known in a video. A public announcement is planned for Wednesday at Los Angeles Trade Technical College.
“The state has changed significantly over the past 25 years and we are overdue for a real debate on the issues, priorities and leadership that the voters want from their senator,” he said in an interview with The Sacramento Bee on Sunday. “California deserves a senator that will not just fully resist the Trump presidency, but also understands the issues that most Californians face every day: That’s fighting for Medicare for all. That’s fighting for our Dreamers. That’s fighting against climate change.”
He added: “Change is needed to fully resist Trump’s pernicious or mean-spirited actions against our state.”
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De León’s entry into the Senate race aims to shake up the state’s Democrat-dominated political order that has largely been characterized by its veteran older guard relinquishing their seats only upon retirement. Next year, Gov. Jerry Brown is leaving office because of term limits. Sen. Kamala Harris last year won the Senate seat of Barbara Boxer, who retired after 24 years in the Senate.
Feinstein, 84 and elected alongside Boxer in 1992, in the “Year of the Woman,” announced last Monday that she would seek a fifth full term next year, a decision aides and confidants said she had been wrestling with for months. Feinstein commands respect in Washington, where she holds esteemed positions on the judiciary and intelligence committees. But she has periodically upset activists back home, who chide her for being too accommodating to President Donald Trump and for clinging to a collegial approach with GOP colleagues they consider unproductive and out of touch.
It is from that dynamic – amid a growing resistance to Trump – that de León, 50, sees the opportunity to capture an improbable victory over Feinstein.
“We now stand at the frontlines of a historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a president without one,” he wrote in a message to supporters. “Every day, his administration wages war on our people and our progress. He disregards our voices. Demonizes our diversity. Attacks our civil rights, our clean air, our health access and our public safety. We can lead the fight against his administration, but only if we jump into the arena together,” he added.
In The Bee interview, de León noted Feinstein’s remarks this fall calling for “patience” with Trump and suggesting he could still be a “good president.”
“He cannot be a good president, at all, whatsoever” he said. “His values are antithetical to the values of the state of California.”
Bill Carrick, a campaign strategist for Feinstein, countered that de León backed establishment Democratic politicians like Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 2008, calling his embrace of progressive positions “counterfeit.”
“He’s making himself sound like he’s been a leader of the progressive movement in California and that he’s out front in a direct appeal to Bernie Sanders voters,” Carrick said by phone. “But the truth of the matter is he never supported Bernie Sanders. I don’t see a record of somebody being out on the cutting edge on a lot of issues.”
De León has made his mark as the leader of the Senate. Since Trump’s election in November, he’s helped lead the body’s resistance to the president. As a lawmaker, he is known for carrying far-reaching legislation on climate change, gun control and immigration. His emergence from the Legislature comes at a time of relative productivity, a point he makes often when comparing the passage of legislation there with what’s moving in Congress.
Aides and strategists acknowledge he will not be able to keep pace with Feinstein in direct fundraising given her decades of raising money for federal office. But they expect outside liberal organizations that believe Feinstein needs to go to step up and support him. She had $3.6 million in her account through June.
Democracy for America, a progressive group with nearly 300,000 members in the state, came out with an immediate endorsement Sunday of de León, citing his work as a young community organizer battling Proposition 187 and his leadership in the push for single-payer health care in the Legislature.
He “didn’t ask people to sit back and wait, hoping maybe Trump would someday turn out OK,” Executive Director Charles Chamberlain said. “He immediately began working to pass policies that would help the people most immediately affected by Trump’s bigoted, greedy policies.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, who urged a challenge to Feinstein, called de León an “innovative policy thinker who has delivered results,” in an early endorsement. “Kevin represents the future of California’s Democratic Party,” Khanna said.
De León was born Kevin Alexander Leon in Los Angeles to parents from Guatemala. His father, Andres Leon, was not in his life growing up. De León spent time on both sides of the border, in Tijuana, Baja California and Logan Heights in San Diego and identifies strongly with Mexican culture. He added the “de” to his name about 30 years ago but never updated it on legal documents.
De León’s Senate district wraps around downtown Los Angeles and is a veritable melting pot. It includes Boyle Heights, Mt. Washington, Silver Lake, Little Armenia, Thai Town, Koreatown, Pico-Union, Historic Filipinotown, Chinatown and Little Tokyo.
After spending time as an immigration and labor organizer, he fashioned a political career by exceeding expectations. In 2006, de León won his Assembly seat over Christine Chavez, the granddaughter of labor icon Cesar Chavez.
Then, after losing his apparent grip to become the Assembly speaker, he returned to win the Senate pro tem post, forging some strong ties with the Capitol’s most powerful groups and individuals like Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmental activist and donor who also is looking at a Senate run.
Steyer, in a statement after de León’s announcement Sunday, said he is “looking at the best way to take our government back from the political establishment and to stop Donald Trump. That includes a full consideration of running for the United States Senate.”
Another possible entrant, wealthy investor Joe Sanberg, has said the state needs more representatives willing to lead the resistance to Trump.
While de León carried policies favored by the party’s left wing, his posts, including a stint overseeing the Senate’s appropriations committee, have prevented him from being associated strongly with progressives at the state Capitol. Still, it was his chamber that wrote and passed a government-run, single-payer health care system. That measure, Senate Bill 562, was held in the Assembly.
A de León bill requiring 100 percent of the retail electricity sold in the state to come from renewable energy sources by the end of 2045 was kept from advancing at the end of session.
His signature measure this year was Senate Bill 54, which aimed to transform California into a “sanctuary state” to shield its millions of undocumented residents. Immigration activists and attorneys said the bill was born out of a challenge from de León, who after Trump’s election challenged them to come up with ideas they would not pursue under Democratic President Barack Obama.
While SB 54 was significantly scaled back over concerns from Brown and some in law enforcement, de León cast the measure as a foil to Trump’s “perverse and inhumane deportation machine,” even if it doesn’t provide full sanctuary.
“California is building a wall of justice against President Trump’s xenophobic, racist and ignorant immigration policies,” he said at an Oct. 5 rally. “We will resist and we will overcome, and we will prove to the nation there is a hopeful future for our country where we cherish diversity and respect our immigrant heritage.”