California Forum

Kevin de León might not win, but it’s hard to blame him for challenging Dianne Feinstein

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, right, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla are among the younger Democrats whose ambitions have been complicated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s decision to run for re-election.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, right, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla are among the younger Democrats whose ambitions have been complicated by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s decision to run for re-election. AP

Not long ago, all Democrats wanted to talk about was “the bench” – as in how the party doesn’t have one. Instead of a youngish, fresh-faced generation of partisans ready to take on Donald Trump and congressional Republicans, we still have Bernie Sanders, 76, Elizabeth Warren, 68, Joe Biden, 74, Chuck Schumer, 66, Nancy Pelosi, 77, and Maxine Waters, 79, calling the shots.


For this, so the story goes, we can blame President Barack Obama, who let Republicans take control of the legislative and executive branches of a majority of states during his two terms in office. Say it with me, everyone: “Thanks, Obama.”

It really is a convenient story. But perhaps, it’s not quite true.

‘Experience counts,’ Feinstein keeps saying. But how is anyone younger supposed to get this crucial experience if she won’t step aside?

Perhaps the problem isn’t that Democrats lack a bench, but that senior members of the party won’t let younger partisans play in the big leagues. Just look at what happened this past week.

With just 140 characters, Sen. Dianne Feinstein single-handedly crushed the near-term dreams of several young California politicians – even if they’ll never admit it publicly.

“I am running for reelection to the Senate,” the 84-year-old tweeted on Monday. “Lots more to do: ending gun violence, combating climate change, access to healthcare. I’m all in!”

An unimpressed Kevin de León, the 50-year-old president of the California Senate, announced Sunday that he would challenge Feinstein for the seat picking what's likely to be an expensive, knock down, drag out, generational, intraparty fight.

But it's not that hard to understand why he would do such a seemingly reckless thing.

If Feinstein wins another six-year term, which is likely, she could be in Congress into her 90s.

That’s a notion that has understandably given many people – particularly younger, more progressive people – pause. Just because one can run for re-election at 84 doesn’t mean one should.

By Tuesday, even Feinstein had to address these impolite conversations about her age, even as progressives in the party zeroed in on it as part of their growing campaign to pry her from the Senate.

“I thought about not doing this,” she told donors in Los Angeles. “I thought, well, maybe I’ve been there long enough. Maybe I should just walk away. I could actually have a pretty good life, and I’ve worked all my life. Maybe it’s time.”

But then she reasoned that her knowledge of the inner workings of Washington would be crucial for defusing an increasingly explosive, reckless and unhinged Trump.

“Experience counts,” Feinstein keeps saying. And she’s not wrong.

But how is anyone younger supposed to get this crucial experience if she won’t step aside? And if not now, then when?

For millennials and Generation Xers, this is a familiar point of frustration. I call it the “silver ceiling” – and for younger Americans with life goals, it sometimes seems as impenetrable as the glass ceiling is for women in the workplace.

The percentage of older Americans in the workforce is higher than at any time since before the creation of Medicare in the late 1960s. Some 19 percent of people 65 or older were working last summer, according to U.S. Department of Labor. Among 65- to 69-year olds, 32 percent had a job and among 70- to 74-year-olds, 19 percent did.

By 2024, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 7.2 million people 55 and older will have a job, making them the fastest growing segment of the workforce.

There are, of course, many reasons why this is happening. The biggest is that, despite the opioid epidemic ravaging the country, Americans are living longer and are generally healthier than previous generations.

But many can’t afford to retire after losing their investments and savings in the Great Recession. The rising cost of health care has made exiting the workplace even tougher.

The qualifying age to get full Social Security is also higher. It’s 66 now, but soon will be 67, and putting off accepting benefits until age 70 can mean getting significantly more – which is probably another reason why so many people continue to work part time, even after they retire.

But not everyone needs to work. For some reason, some older people want to keep getting up every morning, slogging into an office, joining conference calls and presiding over meetings. Work is life, baby boomers tell me with sincerity, and retirement can mean death – or at least a rapid descent into old age.

Whatever. All I know is, politics aren’t immune to these larger national trends.

Feinstein isn’t among the boomers we Gen Xers and millennials often deride as selfish for not getting out of our way. She’s part of the even older Silent Generation.

Nonetheless, her decision to run again has been derided as selfish by some on the progressive left, and it certainly complicates things for up-and-comers such as de León, Eric Garcetti, 46, Alex Padilla, 44, Adam Schiff, 57, and Ted Lieu, 48, to name a few. They’ll be marking time, waiting to move up or running for other, lesser offices, until Feinstein decides to move on.

Her decision also complicates things for the Democratic Party, which, frankly, could use an injection of youthful and, yes, progressive ideas to balance out all of that “experience.”

I wouldn’t go as far as some rabid, single-payer-supporting Sandernistas, who have doubted Feinstein’s progressive credentials with a straight face. As Corbin Trent of the Sanders-inspired group Justice Democrats told The Bee: “Her policies are completely out of touch with California Democrats, and we think she’d be more at home in a Republican primary.” Yeah, right.

But clearly, I’m not alone in my thinking.

A recent poll shows Feinstein’s job approval rating has dropped to 50 percent from 59 percent earlier this year. Even fewer, 45 percent, said they would vote for her in 2018 – a definite sign of the party’s lurch to the left in California.

Only time will tell if some young(ish) whippersnapper can come along and unseat the oldest member of the U.S. Senate. Personally, my money is on Feinstein.

But hopefully for the last time. I’ve had it with the silver ceiling.

Erika D. Smith: 916-321-1185, @Erika_D_Smith

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