State Senate leader Kevin de León will challenge Dianne Feinstein in the 2018 U.S. Senate race. This is great news for California Democrats.
Kevin de León is the first Latino to mount a potentially winning statewide campaign for a top office in California’s modern political era. Win or lose, his candidacy will make history (Loretta Sanchez’s 2016 Senate campaign against Kamala Harris was never “potentially winning”).
Some see the situation differently. They feel that Democrats should not be engaged in internal fights when the goal is defeating Republicans. They see this challenge to a sitting Democratic Senator as “divisive;” I heard similar claims about Barack Obama’s challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2008.
Unlike many progressives, I do not have a problem with how Feinstein votes in the Senate. While she remains the San Francisco mayor most responsible for the city’s ongoing housing crisis (due to vetoes of vacancy control and failing to build housing to meet increased jobs and population), her “moderate” image has not prevented her from almost always sticking with progressives on key Senate votes.
I see Kevin de León’s challenge as great news for Democrats because it will translate into far higher Latino turnout in the June and November 2018 elections. And because it sends a message that Latino politicians deserve a seat at the head of the table when Latino votes keep California Democrats in power.
Taking Latinos for Granted?
Since the rise of Latino voting in California transformed the state into a Democratic stronghold, not a single Latino has been elected to the state’s top offices. Not one.
Feinstein and Boxer long controlled the U.S. Senate seats. Jerry Brown was an unbeatable candidate for Governor in 2010.
If Antonio Villaraigosa had performed as expected when first elected Los Angeles mayor in 2005, he would be the hands down favorite to be California’s next Governor. But the combination of a disappointing mayoral record and a multitude of personal scandals gives him little chance to win against Gavin Newsom in 2018.
Barbara Boxer opened up California’s top offices to non-whites when she departed and was replaced by Kamala Harris. But absent a de León victory the state will head into the future with Latino voters putting Democrats in power but still having nobody from that community in the state’s top three political offices (Latino Attorney General Xavier Becerra holds the state’s fourth most powerful office but he was appointed by Brown, not elected).
I think California’s Democratic power brokers preferred Feinstein step aside for de León. They do not want to take Latino voters for granted. But it was Feinstein’s call.
Boosting Latino Turnout
If de León had not challenged Feinstein, Latino voter turnout could have been dismal next June. This would hurt progressive candidates up and down the state.
Villaraigosa’s ability to generate Latino turnout comes nowhere close to de León’s; the State Senate leader has political allies across California. Any progressive on the June 2018 ballot should be thrilled de Leon is running. His candidacy will increase non-Latino progressive turnout as well.
California’s November 2018 turnout would be large regardless of de León’s running, but if he makes the top two in June there will be a lot more electoral energy in the Latino community in the fall. And that’s good news for Democrats.
Feinstein will be 85 years old when she faces voters in November 2018. She has lived an extraordinary life. Absent Dan White’s assassination of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, Feinstein would have retired from politics and would rarely have been heard from again. Thrust into power unexpectedly, Feinstein has had a remarkable political career.
But there comes a time when one must step aside for the next generation.
Unlike Nancy Pelosi, who some wrongly think should step down, Feinstein does not control a key place of power. Her departure would not weaken California’s federal influence. Democrats are unlikely to retake the Senate in 2018 so Feinstein will remain in the minority party.
Barbara Boxer could have strolled to another six year term, but understood the bigger picture. Unfortunately, Dianne Feinstein does not. The only reason she is running at age 85 is because she enjoys doing the job—it is about what is best for her, not for the people of California.
If California did not eliminate party primaries, Feinstein would be the underdog against de Leon in June 2018. But under the top two system Feinstein will likely face de Leon in November. This makes her the clear favorite to win. Republican voters are not going to vote for a powerful, charismatic Latino to be their next Senator.
But even a defeat positions de Leon to win the Senate seat when it becomes vacant. It also raises his statewide stature.
Kevin de León just presided over the most successful legislative session in California’s history; he understands how to deliver for the working people of the state.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. His most recent book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.Filed under: Bay Area / California