By Marc Sandalow
Never mind respect for elders. The thousands of West Virginians who packed an arena on the last Saturday night in September were having a fine time laughing at California’s 85-year-old senator, Dianne Feinstein.
Egged on by President Trump—who mispronounced her name and used a doddering voice to impersonate her—the crowd howled as Trump mimicked Feinstein’s insistence that she did not leak the letter from a Palo Alto professor accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanagh of sexual assault in high school.
“Uh, uh, uh, what?’’ Uh, no. Uh…no. I didn’t leak, the 72-year-old Trump stammered, further delighting the throng with a befuddled turn of his head to mock Feinstein’s conversation with her staff during Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing. “Uh, one minute. Did we leak? Oh, no. We didn’t leak.’’
It’s too early to know how Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, will be remembered for her role in the Kavanaugh melodrama. But the attack from Trump, known to display a bully’s instinct for ridiculing his foes, underscored how the confirmation spotlight has brought questions about her longevity into sharper focus.
Is Feinstein—already the oldest member of the U.S. Senate—too old to serve another six years? Has her half-century in politics, more than half of which has been in Washington, made her more effective or out of touch? Do her moderation and temperate style put her at odds with her liberal constituents, or advance California’s agenda in the Senate?
Many progressive Californians are frustrated by Feinstein, as evidenced by the fact that in July the California Democratic Party’s executive board voted to endorse state Sen. Kevin de León.
“Seniority means nothing if you don’t use that seniority to forcefully move policies that improve the human condition, in this case for all Californians,’’ de León said.
But she holds a wide polling lead and insists she’s a more productive senator now.
And President Trump?
“He’s a jerk,’’ she told CALmatters.
As Feinstein makes a sixth bid for re-election, this much is certain: The very qualities that lead some in California to eye Feinstein as vulnerable—her political moderation, her non-confrontational temperament, and her age—are viewed by many in Washington as assets. And they have earned her an uncommon level of Republican trust.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said he holds her in “great respect.” Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said “She’s very sincere. I like her very much.”
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina took time during his red-faced, finger-pointing rant against Democratic committee members to absolve her of leaking the accuser’s letter: “The one thing I know for sure is that Dianne Feinstein would not do this and did not do this.’’
Comity, often fake, is common in the U.S. Senate. But Feinstein, a creature of protocol and etiquette, is widely regarded as a workhorse, not a show horse—the ultimate Senate compliment.
“It goes back to my days as mayor,’’ Feinstein explained in a conversation with CALmatters in which she reflected on the horrific events of 1978 that led to her ascension.
She was in city hall the day ex-Supervisor Dan White murdered Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein tried to talk to White as he strode past her on the way to the office of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor and his perceived nemesis.
“Not now Dianne,’’ White said, before entering Milk’s office and shooting him point-blank. Feinstein was the first to see Milk sprawled on the floor, and as she reached down to check his pulse, her finger slid into a bullet hole.
“I was mayor because of assassination” she recalled from her Capitol Hill office, evoking the polarization that followed. “I don’t tend to be a person who tries to pit one person against another. I find I get more done by working together.’’
Tall, stylishly dressed and with black hair revealing only a few streaks of gray, Feinstein is among the most recognizable figures in Washington.
She has sponsored or co-sponsored over 500 bills, taken the lead to pass the nation’s most comprehensive assault rifle ban, successfully pushed a measure adding 1.6 million acres of California desert to the National Park system, and procured nearly half a billion dollars to restore Lake Tahoe. She was the first female chair of the Rules Committee and the Intelligence Committee, and the first woman ever on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The question to many Californians is whether Feinstein is still the most effective representative of an increasingly progressive, multicultural state.
“She tends to be mealy-mouthed,’’ said Cliff Tasner, president of Americans for Democratic Action, Southern California. “We don’t have the time and luxury to be patient…. I don’t believe that moderation works.’’ He cited her support for corporate bailouts, lengthy prison sentences, and her statement last year that Americans should have “patience’’ with President Trump—that she hoped he could change and grow into a “good president.”
Critics see Feinstein’s position as at odds with California, a result of spending too many years in Washington and with the moneyed interests who supported her. Since her first Senate campaign, she has far outraised most of her Senate colleagues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Over the years there have been suggestions that she is influenced by, and in a position to benefit, the various business interests of husband Richard Blum, a private equity financier and self-described “deal junkie.” Nonsense, she once told the New York Times: “We have built a firewall. That firewall has stood us in good stead.”
“Politician was never meant to be a job description,’’ said Bob Berry, Western Regional Director for U.S. Term Limits. “The longer someone serves, the more they are unplugged from their constituents.’’
“The fact is, the longer you are in the United States Senate the more power you have, the more you get done for your state, the more relevant you are to the country. Period,” countered former California Sen. Barbara Boxer.
Despite Feinstein’s moderate reputation, the 2017 GovTrack ratings list her as the Senate’s 18th most liberal member, more liberal than Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and more conservative than California’s junior Sen. Kamala Harris.
But some California progressives see calculation in her recent about-faces to now oppose capital punishment and support legal marijuana.
On the campaign trail, de León contrasts his upbringing in a San Diego barrio with hers as a physician’s daughter in a San Francisco mansion. Yet behind the pretty pictures was private pain, as journalist Jerry Roberts chronicled in his biography “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry.”
The book’s opening sentence: “Dianne was still in grade school when her mother tried to drown her little sister in the bath.”
The stress of being the eldest child of an emotionally unstable mother and an exacting father instilled early in Feinstein a stoic strength that would serve her well on her fraught path to becoming San Francisco’s mayor.
Her straight-laced reputation dates back to her City Hall days, when closing gay bathhouses as a public health measure during the AIDS epidemic and vetoing domestic partner legislation may have been mainstream in much of America, but not in San Francisco. She monitored police radios and sometimes showed up at blazes wearing a fireman’s hat.
The late political writer Susan Yoachum once described Feinstein’s mayoral style as “not so much hands-on as nails-dug-in.’’
But after winning her Senate seat in 1992—part of the “Year of the Woman”—Feinstein found she enjoyed the rarified air of the “world’s most deliberative body.’’
The focus on her age, some contend, is sexist: Strom Thurmond served until he was 100 and Robert Byrd until age 96. But when she became a mayor, at least a dozen senators had yet to advance beyond 4th grade.
Still, many close to Feinstein can’t imagine her ever wanting to leave the Senate. Several said she has told them she feels—almost in a spiritual way—that this is her calling.
Marc Sandalow is a CALmatters contributor and associate academic director at the University of California’s Washington Center. He is the former Washington Bureau Chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, and currently a political analyst for KCBS radio and Hearst Television. This article is an abridged version of the full story, which is available at CALmatters.org—a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.