By Dan Walters | CalMatters Columnist
Dianne Feinstein has been a fixture of California politics for 60 years, beginning with an appointment to the state’s then-separate parole board for women.
To put that in context, her political career began seven years before Gov. Gavin Newsom was born.
From the parole board, Feinstein moved to San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, to two unsuccessful runs for mayor, to acting mayor when Mayor George Moscone was assassinated in 1978, to two mayoral terms on her own, to an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990 and finally to her election to the U.S. Senate in 1992.
Feinstein, now 87, has never tried to be anything other than what she is — a somewhat centrist and pragmatic political figure more interested in policy outcomes than scoring rhetorical points.
Feinstein’s pragmatism has never set well with the left wing of her party. However, in the Senate, her centrist demeanor paid off for California, even when Republicans controlled the house. She took care of the state’s workaday interests in Washington while the state’s other Democratic senators — Barbara Boxer and later Kamala Harris — were best known for speechifying about whatever was trendy at the moment.
In the age of Trump, Feinstein has become steadily more alienated from her party’s ascendant left wing. Feinstein probably would have retired two years ago but her fellow Democratic senators prevailed on her to seek another six-year term, fearing that a titanic battle for her seat would consume huge amounts of money needed for campaigns elsewhere.
Nevertheless, Democratic state Sen. Kevin de León challenged her re-election in 2018 and obtained the official backing of the state Democratic Party. Feinstein prevailed, but the narrowness of her win underscored her weakening status.
Feinstein isn’t on the ballot this year but the left-wing cancel culture is out to get her. An effort is being mounted in San Francisco to remove her name from a public school and in the Senate, she’s taking heat for not being more aggressive in opposing Amy Coney Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination during Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Feinstein, the committee’s senior Democrat, praised Republican chairman Lindsey Graham’s handling of the Barrett hearings and even gave him a post-hearing hug. Immediately, leftist activists demanded that Feinstein be stripped of her Judiciary seat and the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, refused to publicly back her.
“I’ve had a long and serious talk with Sen. Feinstein,” Schumer told reporters when asked if he was looking to make changes atop the powerful committee. “That’s all I’m going to say about it right now.”
The Senate operates on seniority and removing Feinstein from her Judiciary seat, while not unprecedented, would be tantamount to a political execution. Schumer, et al, would probably prefer that she simply step down, but Feinstein is not easily bullied.
There’s no shortage of speculation in media and political circles about whether Feinstein intends to serve the remaining four years of her current term. If she does, it’s a good bet that she wouldn’t run again in 2024, when she will be 91.
The buzz over Feinstein is intermingled with what happens to California’s other Senate seat when, as seems likely, Harris is elected vice president. Newsom would appoint Harris’ successor for the remaining two years of her term and would have another appointment were Feinstein to resign.
Newsom could conceivably appoint himself in either circumstance. However, the more likely scenario is that he runs for Feinstein’s vacated seat in 2024 and, if successful, begins plotting his own presidential campaign.
CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.