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Why centrist Dianne Feinstein is moving so much to the left that she now opposes the death penalty

Why centrist Dianne Feinstein is moving so much to the left that she now opposes the death penalty
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 84, is seeking a fifth full term in November. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Dianne Feinstein built one of California's most successful political brands by standing up to her party's liberal wing.

In her first run for statewide office in 1990, she defiantly faced down raucous booing from California Democratic Party delegates angry over her support for the death penalty. Undeterred, she used footage of the public rebuke in campaign ads to show the state's then-more moderate population — including many Republicans — that she was tough, pragmatic and mainstream.

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That centrist formula propelled Feinstein to the U.S. Senate two years later, and after one tough race, she has pretty much coasted to reelection since.

More than a generation later, California has moved left, becoming one of the nation's bluest states.

At 84 and seeking a fifth full term in November, Feinstein has moved left as well, though not far enough for some Democrats. She still gets boos from her party's progressive wing. But on a series of issues, Feinstein is changing long-held positions, at times overriding her time-tested instinct for centrism.

Most surprising, Feinstein recently announced quietly that she no longer supports capital punishment — a dramatic reversal of the position she embraced during that iconic appearance at the 1990 convention.

Similarly, after decades opposing legalizing marijuana use, Feinstein said this month that she supports a federal law keeping the government from interfering in states such as California that choose to legalize marijuana use.

Other moderate positions that once worked for Feinstein have lately made her look out of touch to some. And her reputation for reaching across the aisle to get things done is less admired at a time when partisanship is so bitter that cooperation is sometimes viewed as betrayal.

Californians booed her last year at separate events for refusing to endorse a government-run healthcare system and daring to suggest it might be possible to work with a Trump presidency.

"It was like the 13th stroke of a clock. It just caught everybody's attention," California Democratic political strategist Garry South said. "The political ground has just really shifted to the left right under her feet, and I'm just not sure she gets it."

Since then, Feinstein has noticeably fallen largely in line with the party in voting against the president, earning her wary praise from progressive activists.

"At the beginning of the Trump administration, we were not pleased with her … and we're seeing her voting record shifting more to the left," said Francesca Wander of San Francisco Indivisible, a liberal advocacy group.

Keith Smith, associate professor of political science at University of the Pacific, said Feinstein is now "sort of on the edge of what's tolerable anymore for a Democrat."

In an interview, Feinstein dismissed the idea that she's changed her positions because of pressure from the left.

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"I've always been pro-woman. I've always been pro-choice. I've always been pro-gay," Feinstein said. "I have been there."

And she brushed off the boos at her town halls last spring, as well as the protesters who have shown up outside her office and home. "It's nothing that is new," Feinstein said. "It comes with the American political presence if you do anything at all."

Feinstein said her change of heart on capital punishment happened a few years ago. Her staff said it went largely unnoticed because Feinstein was rarely asked about it, but they could not pinpoint exactly when the shift occurred. As recently as 2013 she had expressed support publicly for the death penalty.

At times, however, Feinstein's evolution can almost be observed in real time.

When asked in December whether she'd back a short-term spending bill to keep the government open even though it didn't include a promised legislative fix for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, Feinstein initially said she would. But after so-called Dreamers balked at being left out of the legislation, her office quickly clarified that she would not vote for it.

Feinstein hinted that she would support Gina Haspel, Trump's nominee to lead the CIA, praising Haspel's work as deputy director and noting that she had come to respect and like the nominee, despite Haspel's role in the controversial post-9/11 CIA detention and interrogation program.

But after Haspel's confirmation hearing, which Feinstein called "probably the most difficult hearing in my more than two decades" in office, the senator joined nearly all of her Democratic colleagues and voted no.

"She's been frantically searching around for things to do, things to say, votes to cast to at least signal to the base that she's not totally stuck in the 1990s," South said.

Democratic strategist Rose Kapolczynski called Feinstein's shifts the natural progression of a long-serving politician. "Dianne Feinstein's core values are the same," she said. "Is she more liberal on some things than she used to be? Sure, but so is the state."

Kapolczynski said the current political climate is difficult for a behind-the-scenes problem solver like Feinstein.

"Her skill is in bringing people together, trying to hammer out solutions and getting things done," Kapolczynski said. "Her superpower isn't storming the ramparts."

Feinstein's frustration with the more hard-edged nature of today's politics can be plain to see, particularly when she deals with younger activists unfamiliar with her track record. Outside a fundraiser last year, activists pressed Feinstein on why she didn't immediately oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Neil M. Gorsuch. Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she wanted to read his earlier cases before deciding how to vote. That prompted one protester to shout that the senator should take a stand.

"Young man," she responded coolly, "I've made more stands in my lifetime than you are old, by far."

The incident illustrated another key factor in the campaign: Feinstein has succeeded so far in silencing what potentially could have been a significant liability — her age.

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Feinstein turns 85 two weeks after the June 5 primary, and if reelected would be 91 at the end of the term — an age that would put her among the oldest people to ever serve in the U.S. Senate.

Feinstein acknowledges her age is something voters may wonder about. While she can still talk circles around anyone on policy, she said her staff occasionally streamlines her busy schedule. But she insisted she has the stamina for another term.

"I am able to go the distance with anybody. This I've learned because I know how to do it," Feinstein said.

She also has learned to toughen her approach to the president. After the backlash to her urging of Californians to give Trump time to grow into the presidency, Feinstein's tone on the president has hardened.

"I believe that this is not a good president, and I think I gave him every opportunity," Feinstein said in the interview. "I'm very worried about the instability; I'm very worried about the absence of any truth coming out of the White House. I'm very worried by the fact that he continues to divide people instead of bringing people together."

But bringing people together isn't what many Democrats — incensed at Trump's election — want to hear.

"The base wants red meat. That's what they demand. They want someone who's going to wag her finger and make the pithy comment," California GOP political strategist Mike Madrid said. "I just don't think that is in her DNA."

Feinstein agrees that it's not her style: "It's not just spouting off at the mouth. I'm interested in getting things done for my state."

There's no question Feinstein has proved herself effective in a city that isn't known to be, including on many liberal fronts.

Feinstein is perhaps most well-known for negotiating a 10-year nationwide ban on assault weapons in her first term in Washington, facing off with the powerful National Rifle Assn. to get it passed.

"No other living federal elected official has been able to do that," former California Gov. Gray Davis said.

In the mid-'90s, she authored legislation to set aside nearly 14 million acres of California desert for public use by creating the Death Valley and Joshua Tree national parks and the Mojave National Preserve.

As chairwoman on the Senate Intelligence Committee, she oversaw the compilation of a nearly 7,000-page report highly critical of the often-brutal interrogation techniques used by the CIA under President George W. Bush. Bucking the wishes of the Obama administration — and the intelligence community that had locked the report away — she publicly released a summary, and she has pushed in the years since to make the full report public.

Her experience and seniority are her main selling points in the 2018 election, where polls have consistently shown her more than 20 points ahead of her closest rival, state Sen. Kevin de León.

Feinstein hasn't had a tough election since she squeaked past Republican Rep. Michael Huffington in 1994 to earn her first full term. In her last race, in 2012, she beat Republican challenger Elizabeth Emken by 25 points.

California has changed a lot since Feinstein first ran. In the early 1990s, 37% of California voters — including the governor — were Republican, about 57% of the state's 30 million people were white and Proposition 187, which cracked down on immigrants in the U.S. illegally, passed.

In 2018, the California GOP has slipped to 25% of registered voters, hasn't elected a Republican to statewide office in years and is steadily losing its last remaining congressional seats. The state's white population has fallen to 38%. And the governor recently signed legislation creating protections for immigrants in the state illegally.

Such changes may explain why, despite Feinstein's healthy lead in the polls, around 40% of voters are still undecided, a high number for a race with an incumbent who has served for decades.

"It's something that long-serving members have to deal with," said University of the Pacific's Smith, noting that many political veterans eventually face the challenge of holding on to their values while evolving with their constituents. "How do you balance that and continue to represent them well, but continue to be who you are?"

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

UPDATES:

11:30 a.m.: This story was updated with more details about Feinstein's shift on capital punishment.

This story was originally published at 12:05 a.m.

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