For Fe­in­stein, bi­par­ti­san­ship still way to go

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By John Wil­der­muth

It was her first morn­ing event, and Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein al­ready was run­ning late. She was go­ing to a South Bay wildlife refuge to give a speech that was billed as non­po­lit­i­cal, but noth­ing an of­fice­holder does in an elec­tion year is non­po­lit­i­cal.

So it was no sur­prise that Fe­in­stein, who is be­ing challenged from the left in Novem­ber by a fel­low Demo­crat, state Sen. Kevin de León, went straight to the pitch that has kept her in the Se­nate since 1992.

The $177 mil­lion fed­eral grant she pushed through for a 4-mile-long levee and wet­lands restora­tion project at the Don Ed­wards San Fran­cisco Bay Wildlife Refuge in Alviso came af­ter more than 20 years of

years of work and bi­par­ti­san ne­go­ti­a­tions, she said.

“We can get all peo­ple to­gether, Repub­li­cans and Democrats, to work across the aisle for some­thing we be­lieve in,” Fe­in­stein told the crowd.

But it’s a dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal world than it was in the 1990s. With Don­ald Trump in the White House, Fe­in­stein’s kind of deal mak­ing isn’t just out of fa­vor — many Democrats view it as col­lab­o­rat­ing with the en­emy.

In to­day’s Cal­i­for­nia, a kind word for Trump or al­most any other Repub­li­can can be taken as ev­i­dence of a Demo­cratic can­di­date’s un­fit­ness for of­fice. Fe­in­stein learned that last year when a crowd in San Fran­cisco booed her for say­ing that if Trump could “learn and change,” there was the pos­si­bil­ity that he “can be a good pres­i­dent.”

Her sug­ges­tion that peo­ple “have to have some pa­tience” with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion contributed to the uproar. Those state­ments, de León has said, per­suaded him to jump into the Se­nate race.

“In your state Se­nate, Democrats act like Democrats,” de León told del­e­gates at the state Demo­cratic Party con­ven­tion a few months later. “We de­mand pas­sion, not pa­tience.”

The con­trast be­tween an un­der­stated old­school politi­cian like Fe­in­stein and the new breed of Demo­crat was on dis­play dur­ing the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee’s con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing for Trump’s Supreme Court nom­i­nee, fed­eral ap­peals Judge Brett Ka­vanaugh.

Fe­in­stein’s Cal­i­for­nia coun­ter­part, Sen. Ka­mala Harris, got a tip that Ka­vanaugh had been talk­ing with lawyers at a Trump-linked law firm about Spe­cial Coun­sel Robert Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Harris didn’t have enough to go pub­lic with the de­tails, but that didn’t keep her from us­ing her ques­tion time to grill Ka­vanaugh — who de­nied he’d had any such talks.

But when Fe­in­stein re­ceived her own tip — a let­ter that al­leged Ka­vanaugh had at­tempted to sex­u­ally as­sault a girl while they were both in high school, ac­cord­ing to the New York Times — she said noth­ing at the hear­ing and re­fused to publicly dis­cuss its con­tents when word of it leaked out last week. A spokesman said she wanted to go pub­lic, but that the al­leged vic­tim in­sisted on keeping the in­for­ma­tion pri­vate. Fe­in­stein gave the let­ter to the FBI on Wed­nes­day.

De León echoed the re­ac­tion of many pro­gres­sives to Fe­in­stein’s over­all ques­tion­ing, say­ing she had “pan­tomimed her way through (the) hear­ing with­out a sin­gle ques­tion about the con­tent of Ka­vanaugh’s char­ac­ter.”

For Fe­in­stein, her han­dling of the let­ter was a mat­ter of pass­ing up a chance to score po­lit­i­cal points, even against a nom­i­nee she op­poses. Con­fronta­tion isn’t her style.

She’s given up hope that Trump will be a good pres­i­dent, she said, but he and the Repub­li­cans are still a fact of life.

“I don’t agree with Don­ald Trump, I didn’t vote for Don­ald Trump, I don’t sup­port Don­ald Trump,” Fe­in­stein said. “He is not my per­son of choice for the pres­i­dency . ... But he still signs or ve­toes bills.”

With Repub­li­cans in con­trol of the Se­nate, the only way to get any­thing done is to work with the other party, Fe­in­stein added.

“I have a bill that says (un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grant) chil­dren can­not be sep­a­rated from their par­ents and ev­ery Demo­crat is on it, but that’s not enough, ob­vi­ously,” she said. “So I’ve been try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with (GOP Sen. Ted) Cruz to see if we can come up with a bill that we can both agree to.”

From the day the for­mer San Fran­cisco mayor was first elected to the Se­nate, that call for bi­par­ti­san en­gage­ment has been Fe­in­stein’s sig­na­ture. When she pushed the Cal­i­for­nia Desert Pro­tec­tion Act through the Se­nate in 1994, she did it by deal­ing with Repub­li­can con­cerns about pri­vate prop­erty and ex­ist­ing com­mer­cial uses on land that would be des­ig­nated as wilder­ness.

Most Repub­li­cans had op­posed the bill, which had been in­tro­duced years be­fore by Sen. Alan Cranston, D-Calif. “But Sen. Fe­in­stein showed a will­ing­ness to solve prob­lems rather than trum­pet the is­sue,” said then-Sen. Robert Ben­nett, R-Utah.

In 2008, Fe­in­stein and then-Alabama GOP Sen. Jeff Ses­sions col­lab­o­rated on a law that cracked down on on­line phar­ma­cies that sold con­trolled sub­stances with­out pre­scrip­tions. In 2006, she worked with then-Sen. Jim Tal­ent, R-Mo., on a bill re­strict­ing the sale of in­gre­di­ents needed to cook metham­phetamine. In 2003, she and thenSen. Kay Bai­ley Hutchi­son, R-Texas, helped per­suade Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush to cre­ate the na­tion­wide Am­ber Alert net­work for ab­ducted chil­dren.

“I have to work with the other party when the other party is in con­trol,” Fe­in­stein said.

But even she ad­mits that the Se­nate, and na­tional politics in gen­eral, have be­come far more par­ti­san.

When Fe­in­stein took up her land­mark bill to ban the sale of as­sault weapons in 1994, the Democrats were in charge of the Se­nate. But Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, the GOP leader, called for a de­ci­sion on the bill.

“Dole stood up and said, ‘This is a big bill. This is an im­por­tant bill. It de­serves to be de­bated on the floor of the Se­nate,’ ” Fe­in­stein re­called. The ban passed both houses of Congress but ex­pired in 2004.

In the cur­rent en­vi­ron­ment in the Se­nate, a bill that controversial would have no hope. On vir­tu­ally ev­ery ma­jor leg­is­la­tion, “you have to get 60 votes to bring it to the floor or 60 votes to close de­bate and 60 votes to pass it,” Fe­in­stein said. “So it es­sen­tially changes a ma­jor­ity vote to a su­per­ma­jor­ity . ... It makes it very hard (for the mi­nor­ity) to pass any­thing.”

Fe­in­stein ad­mits that the hard par­ti­san turn is a new ex­pe­ri­ence for her.

“One thing I’ve never been is a name-caller,” she said. “And if what peo­ple want is their se­na­tor shout­ing ep­i­thets, I’m not the one. And it’s not go­ing to

Trump “is not my per­son of choice for the pres­i­dency . ... But he still signs or ve­toes bills.” Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein, D-Calif.

ac­com­plish any­thing.”

Be­fore the Ka­vanaugh hear­ing, Fe­in­stein fought to have Repub­li­cans re­lease mil­lions of pages of doc­u­ments re­lated to the years the nom­i­nee spent as a White House aide to Bush. When the time came for pub­lic tes­ti­mony, how­ever, Fe­in­stein’s ques­tions were pointed but po­lite. She fo­cused on is­sues such as his stands on abor­tion rights and gun con­trol, mostly avoid­ing the harsh at­tacks that came from other Democrats.

When Fe­in­stein apol­o­gized to Ka­vanaugh for protesters’ dis­rup­tions of the hear­ing, de León and other pro­gres­sives ar­gued that was proof she was the wrong per­son to rep­re­sent Cal­i­for­nia in the Trump era.

Fe­in­stein shouldn’t be re­spect­ing “coun­try club rules,” de León said. “We should be prais­ing the protesters and stand­ing out­side with them, not apol­o­giz­ing for their ac­tions.”

Fe­in­stein’s mod­er­ate in­stincts were re­in­forced by her early days in San Fran­cisco politics. She “was the least po­lit­i­cal elected of­fi­cial I have worked with,” said Jim Lazarus, a se­nior vice pres­i­dent of the city’s Cham­ber of Com­merce who was Fe­in­stein’s deputy mayor. “Some of this may have come from the non­par­ti­san na­ture of lo­cal gov­ern­ment un­til the early 1990s. Po­lit­i­cal par­ties couldn’t en­dorse dur­ing her years run­ning for su­per­vi­sor and mayor.”

That also meant she didn’t owe any­thing to Demo­cratic Party lead­ers and ac­tivists, as they dis­cov­ered when Fe­in­stein ran for gov­er­nor in 1990.

An early un­der­dog in the pri­mary cam­paign against state At­tor­ney Gen­eral John Van de Kamp, Fe­in­stein drew boos when she went to the state Demo­cratic Party con­ven­tion and talked about her sup­port for the death penalty.

But Fe­in­stein’s cam­paign had a film crew at the con­ven­tion, shoot­ing her speech and the an­gry re­ac­tion of the crowd. She quickly put up a TV spot tout­ing her­self as the only Demo­cratic can­di­date in fa­vor of the death penalty. She beat Van de Kamp in the pri­mary, only to lose the gen­eral elec­tion to Repub­li­can Sen. Pete Wilson.

She has moved left­ward dur­ing her years in of­fice. In par­tic­u­lar, the tough-on-crime per­sona has mel­lowed. She no longer fa­vors the death penalty and has dropped her op­po­si­tion to le­gal­iza­tion of recre­ational mar­i­juana use.

“I don’t want to not grow, I don’t want to not learn,” she told re­porters in May. “The world changes and views change and we change.”

Fe­in­stein hasn’t flipped on all the hot­but­ton is­sues. She re­mains an op­po­nent of sin­gle-payer health care, ar­gu­ing that it’s hard to see where the money would come from.

In­stead, she said, “I’ve sup­ported a pub­lic op­tion of in­sur­ance to com­pete with the pri­vate sec­tor. I sup­port low­er­ing the age of ac­cess to Medi­care to 55.”

Fe­in­stein also pushes back against pro­gres­sive Democrats’ call for Trump’s im­peach­ment, which de León sup­ports.

“What has to hap­pen is an elec­tion,” Fe­in­stein said. “And that’s how peo­ple are re­placed, in an elec­tion.”

She added, “If you want to be a se­na­tor just to vote on im­peach­ment, that’s not a good rea­son to be a United States se­na­tor.”

But many Demo­cratic ac­tivists are mov­ing away from her. In a harsh re­buke to Fe­in­stein, the state Demo­cratic Party’s 330-mem­ber ex­ec­u­tive board over­whelm­ingly en­dorsed de León in July.

Fe­in­stein’s al­lies blamed that on the takeover of the party’s in­ter­nal ap­pa­ra­tus by pro-Bernie San­ders pro­gres­sives and said it wasn’t rep­re­sen­ta­tive of rank-and-file Democrats’ sen­ti­ments. But those pro­gres­sives, im­pa­tient with Fe­in­stein’s col­le­gial and com­pro­mise-friendly Se­nate style, may also be her party’s fu­ture.

There prob­a­bly aren’t enough of them yet to blunt her re-elec­tion chances. She eas­ily won the June pri­mary, even beat­ing de León in the leg­isla­tive district he rep­re­sents in Los An­ge­les.

“Hav­ing de León run to the left and seek­ing pro­gres­sive sup­port is the per­fect strat­egy for Fe­in­stein,” said Darry Sragow, a for­mer Demo­cratic strate­gist who now pub­lishes the Cal­i­for­nia Tar­get Book, which fo­cuses on state po­lit­i­cal races. “There are far more peo­ple to Fe­in­stein’s right than there are to her left.”

A big­ger chal­lenge to Fe­in­stein could be her age. At 85, she is al­ready the old­est mem­ber of the Se­nate. While de León and other op­po­nents are care­ful not to raise the age is­sue di­rectly, there are reg­u­lar wink-and-a-nod calls for “new blood” and “a new gen­er­a­tion of lead­er­ship.”

Fe­in­stein said she spent a lot of time think­ing be­fore she de­cided to run for re­elec­tion, look­ing at “whether I wanted to do it, whether I felt I could con­tinue to do it for a length of time. All the signs were ‘yes’ on both.”

She said she doesn’t let con­cerns about her age bother her.

“My health is good,” she said. “I don’t think age is chrono­log­i­cal. I think age is men­tal and it’s phys­i­cal.”

In her view, the years she has spent in of­fice, the work she’s done and the con­tacts she’s made are rea­son enough to vote for her.

Be­fore mak­ing her speech at the South Bay wildlife refuge, Fe­in­stein played the politi­cian and spent her first few min­utes greet­ing old friends, peo­ple she had worked with for more than two decades to get the project mov­ing.

“You’ve been great,” she said to one. “It’s been so many years,” Fe­in­stein told an­other.

Her abil­ity to cob­ble to­gether bi­par­ti­san al­liances and get things done is what peo­ple should fo­cus on in Novem­ber, she said af­ter the talk.

“I’m not one who beats peo­ple up,” Fe­in­stein said. “I just want peo­ple to un­der­stand how much I care about this state and do­ing the right thing, the pos­i­tive thing on be­half of the peo­ple who live here.”

An­drew Harnik / As­so­ci­ated Press

Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein ques­tions Supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh about his gun con­trol views. The poster shows a quote from him on the is­sue.

Zach Gib­son / Getty Images

Sens. Dianne Fe­in­stein and Pa­trick Leahy sought the re­lease of doc­u­ments on nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh.

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