California’s diversity means the state’s demographics match the national Democratic primary electorate almost perfectly. California has produced a bench of deeply ambitious young politicians, and they are disproportionately politicians of color, from Xavier Becerra and Kamala Harris to Eric Garcetti and Nanette Barragan. But many of these young politicians have faced a key barrier: the old class of Golden State politicians has been hesitant to get out of the way.
Former State Senate president pro tempore Kevin de Leόn has taken matters into his own hands, and has mounted an ambitious challenge to Senator Dianne Feinstein, a centrist who is often to the right of the emerging consensus in the Democratic Party. Ahead of the upcoming June 5 primary, I had the chance to sit down for a conversation with de Leόn and get his perspective on the race and why he thinks he can defeat one of the longest-serving, best-funded, and most recognizable incumbents in the country. (We had another follow-up phone conversation, where he talked about the race, his tenure as Senate president, and his family.)
On Feinstein’s Senate voting record
Feinstein, at one point, said that President Trump could “be a good president” if he tried to learn, which disturbed many progressive activists. It’s not the first time she’s inflamed the progressive base: Feinstein supported the Iraq War, infuriated unions by working with Bush to break up a strike and supported Bush’s tax cuts. And it’s not just what Feinstein has done that’s frustrated progressives, but what she hasn’t done. Medicare for All, for instance, has broad support in California, but she has yet to sign on to a Senate bill being promoted by many of her colleagues.
As the courts weigh more heavily on liberals, Feinstein’s approach to the judiciary under Trump has also come under scrutiny. Progressive group Demand Justice compiled the vote of every senator on all 39 Trump judges (including district, appeals and Supreme Court seats) where there was a cloture vote. According to the data, provided to the The Nation, Feinstein voted in favor of 55 percent of Trump’s judges. The median among Democrats was 51 percent. Senator Kamala Harris, also from California, voted yes on only 38 percent of Trump’s judges. Activists remain concerned that Feinstein might be willing to respect the “blue slip” tradition that Republicans did away with if a Democrat returns to the White House. (Blue slips are where minority-party senators get a say in who is nominated to federal bench seats in their state.)
De Leόn harshly criticized Feinstein’s career voting record during our conversation. “There are a lot of votes she took that I wouldn’t have,” he said. “I wouldn’t have voted for the war in Iraq, which has cost us trillions we could have been spending on a carbon-free economy, affordable college, and single-payer health care. I wouldn’t have voted to prosecute 13-year-olds as adults. I wouldn’t have supported invoking Taft-Hartley to help George Bush end a strike. I wouldn’t have voted for the wall. You know, Feinstein supported the wall before Trump did,” he said, referencing 2006 Secure Fence Act that authorized a wall on the southern border.
De Leόn expressed deep concerns about surveillance and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process, which Feinstein recently voted to reauthorize. “I worry about civil-rights activists being targeted as black-identity extremists,” he said. “I worry about the government saying ‘I don’t like this progressive blogger’ and subjecting them to scrutiny.” And indeed, between our conversation and the publication of this piece, his nightmare became reality: It was recently revealed that a black activist had been detained for five months under suspicion of being a “black identity extremist.”
How to Combat Climate Change
Though de Leόn is more progressive than Feinstein on a range of issues, he’s staking his campaign on two key things: immigration and climate change. As the second-most-powerful politician in a state with an economy larger than all countries but four, he has intimate experience with pressing through progressive priorities on immigration and climate change.
For many activists in California who support de Leόn, climate change was the deciding factor. R.L. Miller, the founder of Climate Hawks Vote, which endorsed de Leon because of the overwhelming support of its members, said of Feinstein, “She’s been a reliable vote, but not not a leader. She’s not active on this issue. And California should have a leader.” Miller noted that in a mailer to activists, Feinstein is touting climate legislation she worked on with Olympia Snowe from 2007, more than a decade ago.
On the other hand, Miller pointed to legislation that de Leόn personally navigated through the State Senate like SB 350, which mandated more renewables (through what are called Renewable Portfolio Standards) and increased energy-efficiency targets, and SB 100, which will make California 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Miller also pointed to an instance of personal importance. As a state party official, she had written a resolution calling on the state pension fund (CalPERS) to divest from coal. “Somehow [de Leόn] found the resolution,” she said, and a few short months later, the law was changed to require CalPERS to divest from coal within five years.
De Leόn has pledged to take no money from fossil fuels, and he wants to achieve full employment through green energy. “Everyone wants a high-wage-paying job. Everyone wants the opportunity to provide for their families. To put a roof over their heads, to put clothes on their backs, and food on the table. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re white, Latino, African American, Asian American, or racially mixed. A job, everyone wants a job,” he said.
“One of my key objectives in California was to reframe the climate-change debate and make it a part of our economic growth plan putting Californians to work. What we have firstly done is delink and decouple carbon from GDP. What that means is that we’re less carbon-intense about the state, our carbon-dioxide emissions are less, as well as criteria for other co-pollutants. Our economy has grown, as a result.”
Public opinion is on his side. According to data from progressive think tank Data for Progress (I am a co-founder), 72 percent of Californians support giving the Environmental Protection Agency the power to regulate carbon dioxide and stricter fuel-efficiency standards (the state has been a leader on fuel standards). In addition, 69 percent support requiring minimum amounts of renewable fuels in the production of electricity “even if electricity prices increase somewhat,” and 63 percent support stronger enforcement “of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act even if it costs US jobs.” Even with an explicit jobs-versus-environment trade-off, the environment wins. And as de Leόn argues, this trade-off is more the invention of pollsters than an actual trade-off: “I want A New Green Deal era. Like the New Deal with FDR, this is a New Green Deal era.”
“I’d Take the Lead Nationally on Immigration Reform”
One of de Leόn’s deepest frustrations with the current Congress is its inability to pass meaningful immigration reform. “What is happening nationwide is members of Congress on both sides of the aisle haven’t gotten their act together to move forward comprehensive immigration reform,” he said. “Dreamers are the low-hanging fruit. This should be the easy part. But Democrats sacrificed their leverage when they folded on the continuing resolution” to fund the government earlier this year.
According to Data for Progress, California has the highest support for a path to citizenship of any state, with 61 percent in support. “I’d take the lead nationally on immigration reform,” de Leόn said. “[Feinstein] is trying to reposition herself as a leader after years behind.”
“I take it personally because I’m the youngest child of an immigrant mother, with a third-grade education. My mother worked her fingers to the bone, spending the vast majority of her life cleaning other people’s homes, in the most wealthiest enclaves in America,” he said. “So, I saw how this single mother, who had the courage of her convictions to risk it all and come to this country, not knowing anyone, how she provided for me. And that’s what makes California such a magical place. If someone who looks like me, who may not be the epitome of what Donald Trump believes a public official should look like, or be like, can grow up and be the leader of the California State Senate, and the candidate for the US Senate. So, I take it personally. And I also recognize that in California we honor our diversity. We don’t ban it, we don’t deport it, and we sure as hell don’t wall it off.”
De Leόn has paid close attention to the case of Romulo Avelica. “He was the one who was dropping off his daughter at school. And ICE was trailing him and he stepped away from dropping off his daughter at school, and they swept up and took him away, in front of his daughter,” he said. “But what makes this much more like a Kafka novel is when you hear the line, ‘You should do it the right way.’ How can you do it the right way if you’ve been here for decades? And the Congress have yet to move forward with immigration plans to normalize the status of millions of folks who have been here for years. It’s all like what comes first, the chicken or the egg? But, it’s almost like Congress is like Abbott and Costello, ‘Who’s on first base, who’s on second? Who’s on second? Who’s on first base?’ It’s a comedy of errors in Washington that proves to be very tragic for many families throughout the country. And now you have politicians who now use immigrants as a political scapegoat for their electoral political goals or objectives.”
As one of the most powerful Latino politicians in the country, many people come to him with their stories. “I’ve heard some stories of Dreamers who have been picked up. Military veterans who have been deported, who have served in our US Armed Forces all over the world, and who have been in combat situations.”
De Leόn told me he’s no fan of ICE, either. “Trump said he would send ICE after the bad guys, but he didn’t focus on them, he focused on families,” he said. De Leόn spearheaded SB 54, a sanctuary state law that would ensure, in his words, that “No state dollars will be used to separate children from their mothers and ICE and CBP can’t go to certain locations.”
De Leόn rejects the idea that ICE is targeting “bad hombres.” Instead, he said what many Democrats are afraid to: that Trump’s anti-immigrant policies are rooted in white nationalist goals. “So with this administration and with this attorney general, this goes beyond the issue of immigration and goes the essence of race and ethnicity,” he said. “This administration is socially reengineering the makeup of immigration in this country. And instead of welcoming folks from all over this world, regardless of who they are and where they come from and the way they look, they’re socially re-engineering America’s legal residency program to look like the images of themselves, and that’s not what America is all about.” The solution, he argues, is that “ICE needs deep-seated culture reform. It shouldn’t be terrorizing communities instilling panic and fear. If you’ve committed a heinous crime we’ll go after you, but what we’re seeing is ICE is targeting families in their communities.”
The Future of Progressivism
In any other state, a politician with de Leόn’s resume would have no trouble seeking statewide office. In a state with 40 million people and only two senators, that’s not a given. Feinstein’s decision not to retire sent a signal to the next generation of politicians of color—the establishment wanted them to wait a bit longer for their turn.
But his candidacy is also a symbol of the ways in which the political left is still coming online. At the state Democratic convention, Feinstein was denied an endorsement, in a powerful rebuke. But left and progressive delegates split their votes between no endorsement and Pat Harris, narrowly denying de Leόn the 60 percent he needed for an endorsement. De Leόn has remained behind in the money race, pulling in $1 million, according to the most recent FEC filing, while Feinstein has nearly $10 million.
Any path to victory will rely on mobilizing the Democratic base, and particularly Latinos. “Latinos make up about a quarter of the electorate, but in past four primaries have comprised about 11 to 12 percent of vote casts. Turnout is going to be the most important question,” said Paul Mitchell, the Vice President of Political Data, Inc and widely seen as one of the leading experts on polling in California.
De Leon envisions a winning coalition of progressives, Latinos, millennials and women, even though he is challenging one of the longest-serving women in Senate. But de Leon has been a leader on campus sexual assault, working closely with millennial student leaders to pass Yes Means Yes, landmark campus sexual assault legislation. Sofie Karasek, the activist who lead the push to pass Yes Means Yes, said that “He stood for sexual respect and survivors’ justice at a time when this work was very isolating and scary. I’ll always remember that.”
Unlike in New York, where unions have backed centrist Governor Andrew Cuomo over progressive candidate Cynthia Nixon, unions have embraced de Leon—both the AFL-CIO and SEIU endorsed him. “Absolutely from the labor perspective, Feinstein is out of touch with working people,” said David Huerta, president of SEIU-USWW. “California is a different state than it was 25 years ago—it shouldn’t be a question that the Senator from California supports card check and EFCA,” a reference to Feinstein’s opposition to 2009 legislation that would have eased the process of unionization.
It’s an uphill battle for de Leόn, but “this is not a quixotic campaign,” said Daraka Larimore-Hall, vice chair of the California Democratic Party, who noted de Leόn’s support among labor and progressive activists. “Feinstein hasn’t been doing the work to make these relationships. In my time in the California Democratic Party, the first time I saw her face was at the most recent party convention.” He (and every activist I talked to) cited the fact that de Leon was a constant presence at party events.
After the June 5 primary, where de Leόn and Feinstein are both likely to advance, the campaign will be a wild ride in a state where Democrats will make up around 45 percent of the electorate. “We’re all bracing ourselves for a turn right in the general election,” said Larimore-Hall. “Feinstein proudly used boos from California delegates about the death penalty in her first run for Senate.” Mitchell noted that neither Democrat will be able to try to win over Republican voters, because the risk of losing Democrats is too great and many Republicans will simply skip the US Senate line on the ballot. He said both candidates could pick up independent voters and might win some Republicans, but it’s not clear how it would shake out. “Feinstein can’t run as the anti-establishment candidate, and even in California, Republican voters like Trump,” said Mitchell.
“The trajectory of the California Democratic Party is completely at odds with Feinstein,” said Larimore-Hall, but the question is whether that trajectory will shift soon enough. Feinstein has been making signals that the competition from the left worries her. For instance, she recently came out against the death penalty, flipping on a position that had long frustrated California Democrats. Towards the end of our conversation, de Leon leaned in and asked a simple question: “If she wins this election, do you really think she’s staying on the left?”