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Sparks don't fly as Feinstein and De León go head to head in San Francisco forum

Sparks don't fly as Feinstein and De León go head to head in San Francisco forum
State Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) shake hands after their "public conversation" Wednesday in San Francisco. (Ben Margot / Associated Press)

In their only scheduled joint appearance before election day, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her challenger, state Sen. Kevin de León, clashed Wednesday on, well, very little actually.

The two Democrats agreed that the U.S. Senate, if their party takes control, should take another look at the sexual assault allegations made against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

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Neither are fans of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed $17-billion twin-tunnels project in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

And they agreed immigration should be a priority in the next Congress.

The discussion ended with the traditional handshake, and then a surprise hug and a kiss on Feinstein’s cheek from De León.

The hourlong “public conversation” took place at noon Wednesday in San Francisco. The format — a question posed to each with three-minute responses — did not allow Feinstein and De León to engage each other, and the two candidates rarely interacted during the cordial event, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California. (The candidates’ campaigns disagree on whether the event constitutes a debate.)

Neither directly attacked the other, and the closest thing to criticism came when De León promised to be a “fresh” voice for California, likely a reference to Feinstein’s long tenure in office.

Throughout the event, De León emphasized what he had been able to accomplish in California on immigration and clean energy as state Senate leader, compared with the lack of achievement in recent years by Congress.

Feinstein emphasized that compromise is necessary because Democrats are in the minority and don’t have the power to press forward alone.

“I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for ‘Dreamers’ the way Donald J. Trump and Republicans fight like hell for his stupid wall,” De León said, speaking of young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.

That prompted Feinstein to push back, reminding him that while he led a Democratic-controlled California Senate, the United States Senate and House are firmly in Republican hands. She implored those watching to vote for Democrats and at least take control of the House.

"You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything. What changes things are elections,” Feinstein said.

With no other debates scheduled and 20 days until the midterm, it was likely the only time the two will appear on the same stage before Nov. 6.

About 100 people were able to watch the exchange in person. As of Wednesday afternoon, no television station had committed to airing the event at a time of day when more voters would have a chance to watch it. The video will be available on the Public Policy Institute’s website.

De León, who was relatively unknown statewide before entering the race last spring, would benefit from a major, free-wheeling, televised debate to make his case directly to voters, something Feinstein’s campaign has not agreed to.

There were no debates during the primary, and Feinstein hasn’t met face-to-face in a formal debate with a general election opponent since 2000. The contest has drawn little interest statewide, and her biggest job for the afternoon was to not make news.

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Wednesday’s forum almost didn't happen. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley scheduled a hearing to consider federal judicial nominees in Washington on the same day, which temporarily cast doubt on whether the event would go forward. But Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and every other Democratic committee member skipped the usual recess hearing in Washington. Grassley and most committee Republicans didn’t attend either.

Feinstein has led by 20 points in nearly every poll since the primary, which she won with 44% of the vote. With a multimillion-dollar loan to her campaign, she has also dominated in fundraising for the last year and enters the final weeks of the race with a more than 10-to-1 cash advantage.

The funding discrepancy has kept De León from running television ads and made it difficult for him to define himself statewide against a senator whom Californians have known for the last 25 years.

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