Dan Morain

Just how weird have politics become? Dianne Feinstein and the rest of us will find out.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks to reporters.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein speaks to reporters. AP

Once again, Dianne Feinstein is under attack from the left, this time in the person of Kevin de León, who is aiming to dislodge her from the U.S. Senate seat she has held since he was 25, in 1992.


Democrats nationally had been paying no attention to California, focusing instead on defending Senate Democrats in 10 states carried by Donald Trump, and plotting to flip enough seats to take control of the House. But disruption happens. Ambitious and termed out with no easy way to ascend, de León decided against waiting his “turn.”

Based on history, de León should lose. But politics have turned weird, and he did have a strong run as California senate leader, building a record as an environmentalist, a union advocate, a voice for immigrants and against guns, and a resistance leader to all things Trump. That Democrats control everything in Sacramento made his path easier. It wouldn’t be so smooth in Washington.

Feinstein, by contrast, committed apostasy, saying Democrats ought to show “patience” with Trump and that he could become a good president. That gaffe was enough for some self-appointed leaders in the anti-Trump resistance to conclude that she had lost touch, at best, or, worse, become complicit. She’s neither.

“I’ve been challenged before. It’s not the first time,” Feinstein said by phone, between budget votes.

Feinstein was sitting in the big chair in San Francisco City Hall when we first met 33 years ago. As she prepared for the 1984 Democratic National Convention, to be held in the convention center named for her predecessor, I don’t recall her opening with a hello-nice-to-meet-you. But she did say something along these lines: I hope you’re prepared. There was tough then, and still is.

The San Francisco of 1984 was, as it is now, a liberal bastion where progressives fretted that young urban professionals were displacing poor people. San Francisco wasn’t as far left as Berkeley, but 23,000 San Franciscans did vote for Sister Boom Boom for mayor in 1982. But as Feinstein told me then, the city was “best run from the middle.” She was most proud of the balanced budget and falling crime rate.

A story at the time was that she was such a hands-on mayor that she would review the plants at City Hall. I’m not sure whether that was true, but she was wont to classify people into two types: those who got ulcers and those who gave them.

Feinstein never was part of the liberal clique that included Phil Burton, the late congressional powerhouse, his brother John Burton, a former Senate president pro tem, and Willie Brown, the former mayor and Assembly speaker, though she did march for fair housing with Brown in the 1960s. She ran for mayor against their good friend, George Moscone, in 1975, finishing third, and probably would have left politics if it weren’t for the horrible events of Nov. 27, 1978, that both haunt her and catapulted her career.

She was never devoutly liberal or particularly centrist. After the assassination of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, she became one of the nation’s leading advocates for gun control. When she tried to ban handguns in her city, gun advocates tried to recall her in 1982. Some people in the city’s gay community piled on because she vetoed city domestic partnership ordinance. She won re-election in a landslide.

Later, as the AIDS crisis worsened, she angered some people in the gay community by sending undercover cops into bathhouses to report back on sexual activity. She was right when she ultimately pushed for their closure, illiberal though it was.

Based on his record, de León probably would take harder liberal stands than Feinstein. He already says he would vote to dump Trump from office, calling him a “clear and present danger to our prosperity and our values.”

Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is more tempered, as she should be. She must vote on Trump’s judicial nominees, and has say over presidential appointees to become U.S. attorneys and judges in California.

“Here’s the thing: If that situation were to come up, the Senate acts as a jury,” Feinstein said. “The Senate listens. There is a whole presentation on the floor by lawyers. There are real problems with this presidency. But I have a job to do and I have to get things done for the state.”

My guess is that Feinstein would vote to toss him from office, if she got the opportunity. But she or de León, or billionaire Tom Steyer, who is considering jumping into the race, or any other Democrat who thinks Feinstein can be beaten, will only get that opportunity if Democrats retake the House and Senate in 2018. That is an unlikely event, made less likely as Democrats fight among themselves over what should be the safest Democratic Senate seat in 2018.

History isn’t on de León’s side. Feinstein has won five statewide races, established Democrats are lining up behind her, and big shots in the Legislature find they have a tough time winning higher office, as failed candidates for L.A. mayor, state controller and lieutenant governor can attest.

But politics have gotten crazy, as Trump shows. And challengers who wait their turn don’t become incumbents. So the race begins.