On Politics

Here's why Dianne Feinstein could well become the longest-serving U.S. senator in California history

Dianne Feinstein, the senior U.S. senator from California, has long had an air of mystery, an essence distilled in a single sentence: Will she or won’t she?

Will she oblige the Clinton White House and run for governor? (That was back in 1998, and after months of speculation she didn’t.) Will she save Democrats’ bacon by challenging Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 2003 gubernatorial recall election? (She took a pass, again after much guessing.)

The question has gained renewed currency as Feinstein looks to 2018 and the prospect of seeking reelection a fifth time. If she won and stayed in office through 2022, she would become the longest-serving U.S. senator in California history, surpassing the 28 years Hiram Johnson served starting in 1917.

More to the point, Feinstein would be 91 years old at the end of her term; at age 83, she is already the Senate’s oldest member. She has until a March 9 filing deadline to make up her mind.

Feinstein gives every indication of running again — she’s already raising campaign cash — even after being fitted with a pacemaker in January. Her staff insisted it was a minor procedure, noting she was back at work after a day.

“There’s no reason for her not to run,” said Jerry Roberts, a veteran political journalist who hasn’t discussed the matter directly with the senator. But he knows her far better than most, having written the definitive account of her life, the biography “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry.”

There’s the power and prestige, Roberts said, but being in the Senate also fulfills a deeply seated sense of duty and civic obligation, instilled starting in high school at San Francisco’s Convent of the Sacred Heart. "She’s very much a throwback,” Roberts said, to a time when the words “public service” didn’t elicit snickers and eye rolls.

Feinstein all but declared her intentions to run again in a January interview with San Francisco’s public radio station, KQED.

“As long as I feel I can get things done, and I can, then I think I benefit the people of my state as opposed to someone new coming in,” Feinstein told reporter Scott Shafer. That, he said, sounded like a candidate seeking reelection. “Well, that’s sort of true,” she replied.

The question, then, is how vulnerable does Feinstein appear to be in 2018? The answer: Not very.

Flat-on-their-back California Republicans are trying to scare up a viable candidate for governor. Short of cloning, it’s difficult to see how they produce a plausible candidate for Senate as well.

Among Democrats, there is no shortage of contenders — provided the seat were vacant.

The legion includes freshly reelected Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Secretary of State Alex Padilla, state Senate President Kevin de León and the hottest commodity of late, Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, who has gained national notice for his aggressive role in the Trump-Russia investigation.

None seem likely, however, to gamble their careers by challenging Feinstein, who starts out in good political shape.

A recent poll conducted for the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley found a solid 59% of Californians surveyed approved of the job she has done. While just about half those interviewed said it would be a bad thing for Feinstein to seek reelection — a number that climbed to 62% when reminded of the senator’s age — those numbers should be taken in context.

It’s one thing to measure attitudes toward a candidate in isolation. It’s something else entirely when that candidate is matched against a real, live warts-and-all opponent. In fact, whatever their concerns, 56% of voters said they would be inclined to support Feinstein’s reelection, a number that ticked down a bit, to 50%, among those made aware of her age.

If there is a challenge, it would most likely come from the political left and candidates who feel they have little to lose taking on Feinstein.

“The fact is the Democratic electorate has become far more leftish and liberalized and radical than certainly it was” when Feinstein emerged as a statewide candidate in the early 1990s, said Democratic strategist Garry South. “Is she vulnerable? Using the typical calculations, probably not. But did anybody think that Bernie Sanders was going to be a viable candidate against Hillary Clinton starting out?”

Feinstein has long been disparaged as too moderate by some fellow Democrats, a perception strangely at odds with her generally liberal leanings. (Here in the parallel universe of San Francisco, where she served 10 years as mayor, Feinstein was considered a conservative bordering on reactionary.)

The view grows largely out of her style — prim, proper — and the lengthy, deliberative process that produces all of that will-or-won’t-she speculation.

The vote for Supreme Court nominee Neil M. Gorsuch provides the latest case in point. Feinstein came out against his confirmation, an utterly predictable move, well after most of her fellow Democratic colleagues — including freshman California Sen. Kamala Harris — made their opposition known.

Confronted recently by about two dozen liberal activists outside a fundraiser in Los Angeles’ Hancock Park, Feinstein told her accusers there were procedures to be followed and order to be respected. It made “no sense,” she said, “for me to make up my mind” without first undertaking a thorough examination of Gorsuch’s record.

“You’re behaving like a reasonable person,” a voice wailed from the unhappy crowd.

No doubt Feinstein took that as a compliment.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

@markzbarabak on Twitter

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