San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)

California­ns need more from Feinstein


For the 16 months remaining in her term, Sen. Dianne Feinstein will have just one job: Show up to work and vote the Democratic Party line.

The bar for California’s 89-year-old senator has dropped that low as she returns from her nearly three-month absence while she battled complicati­ons from shingles.

The 39 million California­ns Feinstein represents can’t expect one of the state’s most accomplish­ed politician­s to be an orator. Or to even meet and talk to constituen­ts — virtually or in person. Or to engage in more than passing, sound-byte interviews with the media that often generate confusion and concern. California’s other senator, Sen. Alex Padilla, has done 38 long-form interviews this year and attended 15 events in California.

Feinstein won’t grill witnesses in committee hearings. She will read what her staff has written for her. At the first Judiciary Committee meeting she attended after returning to work, an Associated Press photo captured what her staff had written in large type for her to say: “I ask to be recorded as voting in person on the three nominees considered earlier.”

It has come to that.

She will have a hard time leveraging her lifetime of centrist stances to form coalitions with moderate Republican­s, like she has done for much of her three decades in the Senate. Or to be an out-front advocate for gun safety as she once was. Or to be a check on the CIA’s excesses, as she famously did a decade ago, even when it meant staring down President Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat.

Those days are over for the pioneering politician — the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco and, along with Barbara Boxer, to represent California in the Senate. On her first day back to the Senate this month, Feinstein said “my doctors have advised me to work a lighter sched

ule as I return.”

That’s totally understand­able. Nobody begrudges Feinstein her time to recover. But if she, her family and close circle of confidants believe she is well enough to return, California voters deserve straight, coherent answers on her condition.

And about everything. My colleague Shira Stein reported that Feinstein’s office confirmed she has suffered complicati­ons from her shingles diagnosis, including Ramsay Hunt syndrome — characteri­zed by facial paralysis and hearing loss — and encephalit­is. The latter can cause confusion and disorienta­tion, irritabili­ty, memory loss and cognitive impairment, Stein reported.

That diagnosis was apparently news to the senator.

CNN’s Manu Raju reported Thursday that Feinstein said “she did not have encephalit­is, saying it ‘really has never been diagnosed.’ ”

“It was a really bad flu,” she said.

No, it wasn’t.

Days after her return, reporters asked her about the ovation she received from her fellow senators after being gone for months.

“I’ve been here,” Feinstein said. “I’ve been voting. Please, either know or don’t know.”

Those conversati­ons sound alarming. A more charitable interpreta­tion might be that maybe Feinstein meant that her condition was like having a really bad flu. Or maybe she really is out of it. Voters can’t know because Feinstein has dashed off after these quickie D.C. hallway interactio­ns before they are fully clarified.

Yes, now that Feinstein is back, Democrats are able to approve the more liberal judicial nominees who were stalled in the Judiciary Committee because of her absence. And her vote will probably be crucial to Democrats in the debt ceiling standoff.

But how much of a distractio­n will her reality-challenged comments be to Democrats? Feinstein’s staff might as well carry around mops for all the messes they’re going to have to clean up for the next year and a half.

Feinstein became one of California’s most popular politician­s over the years in part because she often appeared to be a trusted, moderate voice of sanity in a state that occasional­ly lacks them. At her peak in 2001, 57% of voters approved of Feinstein, according to the Field Poll. In February that dipped to 35%, according to a Berkeley IGS Poll. The survey found that 64% of respondent­s were glad that she was not seeking re-election, including 60% of Democrats.

Hearing directly from Feinstein would go a long way to soothe fears about whether she can still do the job, but her office has rejected invitation­s for a long-form interview. The Chronicle and other outlets have reported that Feinstein is surrounded by a phalanx of aides who allow very little media access.

Her response is much different from that of Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pa., who was absent from the Senate after checking himself into Walter Reed Military Medical Center to be treated for clinical depression. Soon after he returned, he consented to multiple in-depth, often emotionall­y raw interviews.

Feinstein has yet to agree to a sit down, in-person interview. California voters deserve at least that. Until then, questions will continue to swirl around her illness and return — and how it affects the race to replace her in the Senate next year.

Last week, some outlets wondered why Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi’s eldest daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, has been by Feinstein’s side daily since her return to Washington. The New York Times wrote that “some have read Ms. Prowda’s involvemen­t as a tacit endorsemen­t by Ms. Pelosi of Ms. Feinstein’s decision to stay on, reasoning that it could give Representa­tive Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and Ms. Pelosi’s chosen candidate in the crowded race to replace Ms. Feinstein in 2024, a leg up.”

Replied Schiff campaign communicat­ions director Marisol Samayoa: “Senator Feinstein is a valued colleague and friend of the congressma­n, and his concern over the last few months has been for her health, not the

politics of it. He’s glad that she felt well enough to return, and that her work confirming judges and stopping a dangerous default goes on.”

Feinstein’s final months in public service don’t have to be this way. She could be more like another California Democrat who was out of office for months battling health ailments, Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord.

DeSaulnier is one of few people who can provide a window into what it’s like to return to Congress after a long illness. DeSaulnier has done it twice. In 2015, the 71-year-old DeSaulnier took time off to recover from cancer. In 2020, he hovered near death after a fall where doctors gave him a 10% chance to survive. He spent two months in the hospital.

What was different — and refreshing in the often furtive and opaque world of politics — was DeSaulnier’s transparen­cy with voters during both of those ordeals. He felt he owed it to his employers — the citizens of California — to be up front with them about his health.

“I’ve always maintained that, if I’m myself, and the voters aren’t comfortabl­e with me, then I’m cool with that,” DeSaulnier told me. “But if I’m going to project something that I’m not, then I don’t really want the job.”

DeSaulnier learned that lesson during his first campaign for Concord City Council more than three decades ago (when he was a Republican, by the way). He was canvassing voters door-todoor with a reporter in tow. The

journalist told him that he knew that his father, a former member of the Massachuse­tts legislatur­e and later a Superior Court judge, was disbarred for grossly improper conduct and resigned in 1972 after being accused of accepting a $60,000 bribe. Years later, DeSaulnier’s father took his own life.

DeSaulnier ignored political advisers at the time who warned him that was all voters would remember about him. Far from it. His transparen­cy has been a key to his success. DeSaulnier went on to serve in local, county, state and federal offices.

He could have resigned from office after his near-death experience in 2020. But what kept him going was the response he got from his constituen­ts in reaction to his openness about the struggles he was facing. He remembers sitting in his Washington apartment with his son and daughter-in-law shortly after being released from the hospital, reading mounds of supportive letters and emails from people inspired by his journey.

“They were so genuine and emotive,” DeSaulnier said. He recalled the Catholic Mass sermons he heard growing up where the priest “would say, ‘If you want to live a good life, imagine yourself at your own funeral and what would you want people who cared about you to say about you.’ I could read what people wrote about me.”

DeSaulnier said that motivated him to get back to work.

“Whatever put me in this position and kept me alive, I wanted to respect it by getting back to work. Not just to get back just to get back to work, but doing it in a thoughtful and responsibl­e way,” he said.

It would be great to hear — from Feinstein — what is motivating her to stay in office when she has nothing left to prove.

The other day, her longtime political consultant Bill Carrick told me that “she feels a sense of duty and commitment to serve out a term. It’s just her.”

Feinstein has felt that sense of responsibi­lity since she was a child, the eldest offspring of a mother who suffered from thenundiag­nosed mental illness, the protector of her younger siblings. She felt it when she was abruptly thrust into the mayor’s office in 1978 after the assassinat­ion of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk — just a short time after she was privately considerin­g ending her political career.

“I’ve learned through all this — through death, through illness — this is what I’m meant to do,” Feinstein told me on The Chronicle’s “It’s All Political” podcast in 2018. “It sounds like I’m on some kind of messianic mission. That’s not the case. But you do figure out what you’re meant to do. I’ve tried to serve people.”

DeSaulnier is a friend and supporter of Feinstein, even though he is far more progressiv­e. They shared a mutual close friend in the late Rep. Ellen Tauscher, one of few in Feinstein’s inner circle. He trusts his friends, Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, to handle the situation deftly.

“She’s back. She’s voting. We’re moving people (confirming judges). I think that’s a good outcome,” DeSaulnier said.

But don’t California­ns deserve more from their senator?

“I have a unique perspectiv­e because this could happen to anyone,” DeSaulnier said, before quoting the Bible. “‘Judge not, lest you be judged.’ She’s showing up.”

For the foreseeabl­e future, that’s all California voters will get.

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 ?? Shuran Huang/Special to The Chronicle ?? Dianne Feinstein attended her first Senate meeting after her bout with shingles on May 11 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Shuran Huang/Special to The Chronicle Dianne Feinstein attended her first Senate meeting after her bout with shingles on May 11 on Capitol Hill in Washington.

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