This week, California’s 89-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein bowed to the inevitable. Facing a growing chorus of critics who detailed her incapacity for the job, and a growing number of young congressional colleagues who were throwing their hat into the ring in an effort to forcibly dislodge her, Feinstein has announced that she will not seek reelection in 2024.
The venerable senator’s declaration was met with predictable tributes, with Chuck Schumer leading the charge and stressing her status as a living “legend.” Truth be told, though, Feinstein has long been out of step with her own party. In 1990, she ran for governor of California as a strong supporter of the death penalty, relishing the vocal backlash this provoked at the Democrats’ state convention. In 2020, a generation later, she drew scorn from progressives after heaping high praise on Lindsey Graham for how he had rammed through Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, midway through the general election voting process. She established a reputation as a national security hawk, and was criticized from the left for promoting expensive defense policies from which her investor husband stood to financially benefit.
There is, with Feinstein’s long-overdue retirement announcement, a real opportunity for Californians to elect a far more progressive senator, one more in tune with the political melodies of the moment and the priorities of a state that is, increasingly, pursuing its own social democratic policy route.
In the weeks leading up to Feinstein’s decision, Representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff announced that they were in the race; immediately after Feinstein bowed out, Representative Barbara Lee filed papers to enter the primary. It is likely that Representative Ro Khanna will also throw his hat into the ring. That’s a pretty stellar list of would-be senators to choose from.
Earlier this week, I talked about the Senate race with Porter, who has emerged as a rock star of the progressive left since she was elected to Congress in the Blue Wave midterms of 2018. The recent TV footage of her sitting in Congress and nonchalantly reading the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, while Republicans repeatedly failed to vote to install McCarthy as House speaker, only solidified that status.
Porter stressed her track record in standing up to corporate interests, big banks, Big Oil, and Big Pharma. She derided their “special interest playbook,” and spoke of the need to install “good guardrails” to protect the country’s economic interests from being abused by mega-corporations.
What she spent the most time discussing, however, was housing policy, an issue that bedevils her home state of California in particular, but that has national implications in a country in which on any given night nearly half a million people are homeless. It was, she said, of paramount importance to counter the disastrous underinvestments of recent decades. It will take building up a stock of affordable, quality housing, ensuring that people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups, such as former foster care children, can find shelter, and reinvesting in new forms of public housing—including short-term, transitional housing, and shared work or residential space. “The last time the federal government made a big investment in housing was the GI bill—and it really shows,” the single mother of three said.
Like Elizabeth Warren, who endorsed her for the Senate early on, Porter has a “plan” for a host of problems, beyond housing, that are dear to progressives’ hearts. Should she be elected to the Senate, she also wants to turn her attention to rebuilding popular confidence in government through meaningful reforms. That includes banning congressional stock-trading—which, she noted, failed to pass in a Democrat-controlled Congress—as well as the creation of a code of ethics for the US Supreme Court and meaningful campaign finance reform to remove the ugly influence of corporate PACs over the political process. Porter touts her record in both not accepting corporate PAC money and, through her appeal to the grassroots, being a startlingly strong money-raiser. She wants Congress to legislate to protect abortion rights. And she favors pushing a Green New Deal that wouldn’t just promote environmental goals but would, at the same time, strengthen workers’ rights in the newer, greener, economy. “We have to understand climate policy as a broad-based economic policy. If we allow powerful corporations to gut union rights, we will not have delivered on the promise of a Green New Deal.”
Porter’s positions on the economy and on workers’ rights mesh well with current state-level legislative efforts in California. This week, the California Labor Federation and Senator Lena Gonzalez unveiled SB 616, which, if it passes, will expand existing paid sick leave to seven days per year for every working Californian. Also this week, Labor Federation and Assembly member Liz Ortega introduced a bill that would require all high school students to be taught about workers’ rights, including around wage theft, sexual harassment. and the right to join a union.
In her time, Dianne Feinstein was, indeed, something of a groundbreaker. But that political ground has shifted dramatically under her in recent decades, resulting in a California that, on many of her signature issues, has moved considerably to the left of Feinstein’s comfort zone. The 49-year-old Porter, who represents a swing district in what used to be the reliably Republican suburbia of Orange County, who beat back a strong GOP campaign to unseat her in 2022, and who has shown herself to be one of the Democratic Party’s strongest and most uncompromising of grassroots draws, is well positioned to tap into this desire for change.