As top California Democrats plot their future career moves, a critical piece of information is missing: Will Sen. Dianne Feinstein seek reelection? Speculation about the 83-year-old senator's plans took on new urgency this year, as ambitious statewide politicians decide whether to run for governor with Gov. Jerry Brown termed out.
News that Feinstein was fitted with a pacemaker last week reignited the parlor game, with California political circles discussing anew what the procedure might mean for the veteran lawmaker as she evaluates her options.
"Historically, she has kept people guessing about her plans," said Darry Sragow, a Democratic strategist who managed Feinstein's first statewide campaign, an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990. "My experience has been that she prefers to play her cards very close to her chest … and now the consequence of that is very significant because California is a gigantic place with a lot of very politically competent and ambitious players who really don't have a lot of places to go."
The upward mobility of a generation of Democratic politicians in California has been stymied by a lack of vacancies in the state's top offices, which were dominated by veteran lawmakers. Brown, who has spent decades in public life, has been governor since 2011. Feinstein has been senator since 1992. Barbara Boxer, also elected senator in 1992, was the first to create a vacancy when she decided not to run for reelection in 2016. Former California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris won that seat in November.
"You've got these septuagenarian and octogenarian Democrats who have been holding these seats for some period of time, and there have been a couple generations of young, eager Democrats who have come and gone and didn't have an opportunity to run for these seats, so 2018 is kind of crunch time," said Democratic strategist Garry South. "There is a synergy obviously here between the governor's race and that Senate race. Those are the two big plums that are up in 2018. The longer Feinstein waits, the more indecision it creates with a lot of Democrats who would potentially be eyeing that seat."
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and state Treasurer John Chiang have already announced their plans to run for governor in 2018, and have raised millions of dollars each.
Other top Democrats who have their eyes on higher office, such as Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and billionaire environmental activist Tom Steyer, have a critical decision to make — jump into the governor's race, or await Feinstein's decision. If they forgo the gubernatorial contest and Feinstein does run for reelection, their next opportunity for an open major statewide post could be in 2024, an eternity in politics.
One option for these Democrats could be to enter the governor's race and then jump over to the Senate race if Feinstein decides to retire, said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime advisor to Boxer. Though the jobs are different, the groundwork to run for either role is similar.
"In a way, preparing for governor and preparing for Senate require a lot of the same fundamentals — you need to be visible, you need to raise money, you need to make the rounds with Democrats and labor and other important constituencies," she said. "Statewide relationships, name ID and money are the key."
Another option, seen as fairly unlikely for any top Democrat given Feinstein's popularity and ability to self-finance a campaign, would be to run against the senator.
Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, has repeatedly demurred when asked whether she will run for reelection. Last March, she told The Times to check with her in a year. She said then that she would base her decision on whether she could continue to be productive.
"My health is good," Feinstein said at the time. "I can work hard and continue it. Being effective is the key for me."
Feinstein has raised money for a bid for a fifth term. In November, supporters wrote checks of up to $1,000 to "Feinstein for Senate 2018" to attend a campaign dinner at Charlie Palmer's Steakhouse in Washington, D.C, according to an invitation obtained by The Times. She has planned two reelection kick-off fundraisers in San Francisco and Los Angeles in mid-March, according to a Democrat with knowledge of the events.
But fundraising, by itself, is not absolute proof that she is planning to run for reelection. Elected officials often raise money for their campaign accounts to fund their political efforts. And not raising money would be an obvious red flag that would lead to her being labeled a lame-duck senator, costing her relevance and power.
Political observers point to other clues to argue that Feinstein does not feel her work is done. She is passionate about intelligence matters and national security, issues that will be at the forefront of President-elect Donald Trump's tenure.
She fought to become the ranking Democrat on the judiciary committee, which will be in the spotlight during confirmation hearings for Trump's Supreme Court nominees, and she holds senior posts on the intelligence and appropriations committees.
Although Feinstein's decision to have a pacemaker implanted in the middle of confirmation hearings last week took some by surprise, she was at work Tuesday, the day of the procedure, to question Trump's selection for attorney general and back at Capitol Hill on Thursday to grill the president-elect's selection for CIA director.
"I did not see a senator [during the confirmation hearings] that was anywhere close to retiring, pacemaker or not," said Michael Trujillo, a Democratic strategist in Los Angeles who is close with Villaraigosa. "This senator still has a lot more legacy policy moves that she wants to get through and … I think she's going to feel this great sense of patriotic duty to be there and to be a check on Donald Trump."
There is also Feinstein's reputation as fiercely headstrong.
"My observation of Feinstein over the last 25, 30 years, has been that she is a pretty resolute person and does not like to be told by others what she can and cannot do," South said. "I think all this public speculation — 'Oh my God, she's going to be 85, she can't possibly run' — may just give her the resolve to say, 'Screw all these people who are talking about me being too old. I'm going to run anyway.' "