Dan Morain

Dianne Feinstein offers a model for a senator who would follow

Feinstein on the value of women role models

California Senator Dianne Feinstein talks to the Sacramento Bee editorial board. Here she discusses the value of women as role models.
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California Senator Dianne Feinstein talks to the Sacramento Bee editorial board. Here she discusses the value of women as role models.

On a day when Donald Trump said women who get abortions would “face some sort of punishment” if the procedure becomes illegal, Dianne Feinstein talked about role models, a little girl who believed she could be mayor and the traits the next California senator should possess, whoever she might be.

At age 82, in her 24th year in the U.S. Senate, Feinstein arrived at The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board Wednesday, prepared with binders and charts, and proceeded to discuss complicated matters of water politics and law, holding out hope she can win passage of legislation to help her state.

The vice-chairwoman of the Senate intelligence committee offered insights about the FBI-Apple fight, siding with government’s right to conduct legal searches, contending that no one is above the law, “no matter how powerful the company.”

The veteran Judiciary Committee member remains optimistic that “sanity will prevail” and her Senate colleagues will confirm Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court because that’d be right for the country and the rule of law.

“The court shouldn’t be like the Senate or House of Representatives. The court should be filled with people with real legal distinction. This is that man,” Feinstein said.

And the topic turned to Trump. Had she ever seen anything like him?

“Nothing like it, ever,” said the politician who has seen far more than most. “The one thing I don’t know is, is this the real Donald Trump? If it is, it has a lot of danger for our country. … To say the things he says reaches into the darkness of some people’s mentality and that is unleashed now.”

The Mexican government would never pay for a wall. The notion advanced by Trump that people would be denied entry to the United States because of their religion would reverse two centuries of tradition.

“I see ambassadors who come in. I see foreign ministers who come in. And the question is what is happening to this country?” she said.

Feinstein is of an earlier generation. She is not one for quick headlines. Her bills don’t read like press releases. Her mind-numbing water legislation runs 184 pages.

She dated herself by picking up an iPhone and calling it a telephone. Younger people might gently tell her that it is so much more. She readily acknowledges her technological limits.

But this is someone who has broken through glass ceilings. She won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when President Richard Nixon was in his first term. Too moderate for her city, having lost runs for mayor, she might have left politics but Dan White assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. As the first female board president, she succeeded Moscone to become mayor in 1978, and got elected on her own, firsts in her city.

In 1984 when I first met her, Walter Mondale considered her as a running mate. In 1990, she became the Democratic nominee for governor, a first, and she won the Senate seat in 1992, “the year of the woman.’’

She tells of when she was mayor, and a friend of hers had four boys and one girl. The kids were sitting at a table playing a make-believe game of “mayor.” The girl sat in the big chair.

“Well, Dad,” one of the kids explained, “you know only a woman can be mayor.”

Role models matter.

She won’t endorse in the race to replace Sen. Barbara Boxer, her partner in the Senate, until after the June primary. But she offered some wise counsel to whoever wins, probably Attorney General Kamala Harris, a San Francisco Democrat, or Rep. Loretta Sanchez, an Orange County Democrat.

“My advice is to work for the whole state, to listen to people carefully and then be a problem solver, rather than a problem maker,” she said. “We have so many problem makers. We don’t need another.”

And tackle complex issues, water among them.

“Nobody wants to touch it because it is so controversial. But you have to, and the drought pushes us to do certain things,” she said.

And listen to people who have come before.

“The ability to be able to produce for the state is extraordinarily important. That comes with doing an apprenticeship, working hard, making friends.”

Feinstein doesn’t need to decide for a while whether to run for re-election in 2018, and won’t. But in her fifth decade in office, she’s still showing up willing to work and able to tackle hard issues. Agree with her or not, she has represented the state honorably. Whoever replaces Boxer and Feinstein could do far worse than follow her model.