As U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein fends off a serious primary challenge this year from progressive state Sen. Kevin de León, Californians confront two questions: Who can deliver? And who will best defend this blue state against President Donald Trump?
The answer – Feinstein – should be easy. The incumbent Democrat, a Washington institution, has served for a quarter-century, with a formidable record.
Her review of the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program while she led the Senate Intelligence Committee helped expose the CIA’s use of torture after 9/11. Her bipartisan work in 2007 to toughen and enforce fuel economy standards is a big part of why 50 mpg cars are no longer the stuff of science fiction.
Her assault weapons ban saved lives for a decade before the NRA in 2004 strong-armed Congress to allow it to sunset. The Desert Protection Act, which she cosponsored, created the national parks in Joshua Tree and Death Valley, and her nudging of President Barack Obama in 2016 created three new national monuments in the California desert.
Because of her seniority on the Senate Appropriations Committee, billions of federal dollars have flowed into the state for transportation, water supply infrastructure and other projects. Her advocacy on behalf of Lake Tahoe has landed hundreds of millions of dollars for the restoration of its cobalt blue waters.
And her release of the full transcript of Senate Intelligence testimony about the famed Christopher Steele dossier and the Russia investigation earned “Sneaky Dianne” that most coveted of Trump Resistance bona fides – an insulting presidential nickname.
Obviously, however, choosing Feinstein isn’t as easy as it should be. Otherwise, her party’s progressives would have endorsed her at the state Democratic convention in February.
Instead, she fell short of the 60 percent threshold she needed to quash de León – a fiery Los Angeles Democrat who rose from San Diego’s impoverished Barrio Logan to become president pro tempore of the state Senate.
De León has his own impressive resume, having successfully spearheaded key legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, extend California’s landmark cap-and-trade system and, famously, to make California a so-called sanctuary state by limiting local law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration agents.
He argues that the wealthy Feinstein is too centrist, too willing to compromise and too out of touch with her party, which has become more diverse and left-leaning. She lives, he says, “in a mansion surrounded by a wall,” and underestimated President Donald Trump’s pathology by suggesting last year that Californians have “patience” with him.
What he doesn’t add – though it is surely a consideration – is that he is 51, and she will be 85 when voters go to the polls for the November general election. The concern over Feinstein’s age is understandable; if re-elected, she’ll be 91 by the time her term ends.
But at least for now, it’s not nearly as pressing an issue as her critics on the left would make it. In an interview last week with The Sacramento Bee Editorial Board, she spoke with acuity and depth on topics ranging from cannabis banks to the CIA to North Korea. In some areas – cybersecurity, for instance – she acknowledged that her knowledge is lacking, but she certainly seemed in better shape than most of the octogenarian male senators she serves with; last year, she had a pacemaker installed and went back to work the next day. “I’ve never felt my age,” she said on her way out the door.
In every way – credibility, financial support, public opinion – Feinstein and De León are the top two candidates in a field of more than 30.
We wish a viable Republican were on the ballot, but alas, there is not. Party delegates made no endorsement at their state convention last weekend, and the only GOP candidates to register support in public opinion polls have been Patrick Little, an avowed neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier who kicked an Israeli flag as he was ejected Saturday from the convention, and a relatively unknown Trump supporter named James P. Bradley who tied De León in one poll apparently because he was the first Republican on the list with an Anglo-sounding name.
No elected official, not even Feinstein, should take their tenure for granted. De León is right to issue a serious challenge. He will have plenty of opportunities before November to make his case to voters. In a less turbulent moment, he might have even been our top choice.
But in this top two primary, we endorse Feinstein as our first choice and De León as our second. Trump is waging war on this state, and California can’t afford to sacrifice her clout and experience.