Capitol Journal

Will politics pass by Sen. Dianne Feinstein as both parties veer to extremes? Let's hope not

Every ambitious politician yearning to replace Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate missed their best shot. They should have started running hard before she committed to the race.

While Feinstein was still mulling over whether to run a sixth time at age 85 next year, Senate wannabes could have been flexing muscle and charming voters all over the state.

They could have been selling a futuristic, progressive agenda while projecting youth and energy. Raising money and climbing in the polls.

No challenger may have been that capable. But if one had been, it might have startled Feinstein and prodded her to think twice: I haven’t had a tough race in 23 years. Do I really want to endure one again at my age? Perhaps she would have been deterred from seeking reelection and retired.

We’ll never know. That window closed when Feinstein tweeted Monday she was “all in” for another Senate term.

She’d be 91 when her term expired, breaking Republican Hiram Johnson’s California record for longevity in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.”

The Senate is Feinstein’s life and she excels there. Absent a health problem, she was never going to bow out voluntarily without being nudged.

She had a pacemaker installed last winter but apparently is in relatively good health. Her husband has undergone chemo treatment for lung cancer, but is feeling good, she told me.

In this deep blue state, it’s no longer Republicans who keep Democrats from highly coveted offices. It’s Democratic incumbency that blocks the upward mobility of the young and restless.

In this new political world, Democrats will need to shed their shyness, politeness and political correctness if they hope to advance up the ladder. They’ll need to challenge incumbent fellow Democrats and not fret about party disloyalty.

That’s the price of a collapsed two-party system in this state.

Not that it would have been particularly good for California or the party if Feinstein hadn’t run or if there’d been a bloody Democratic fight for her seat.

Of course, there still could be. The candidate filing deadline for the June 2018 primary isn’t until March 9. But it’s difficult to envision any Democrat beating Feinstein.

There has always been speculation about Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer running. But that’s doubtful. He’s relatively unknown. And California voters never have been kind to a rich political neophyte trying to launch a career from the top rung. Anyway, he’d be running against a fellow Bay Area Democrat.

State Senate leader Kevin de León of Los Angeles would love to run for the U.S. Senate. He has been sniping at Feinstein that she’s not anti-Trump enough. But he’s another guy who is unknown statewide. And he lacks enough money to get known. All his bucks have been raised under state rules and can’t be transferred into a U.S. Senate account.

There were widespread rumors that De León, who’s termed out of the Legislature next year, was going to announce his Senate candidacy this week. “That’s not happening,” a top aide emailed me. “Folks need to take a breath. He’s still working through his options.”

For years, the fun political parlor game has been speculating who might replace Feinstein if she did retire. The list of Democrats included Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. All waited for Feinstein to decide. Then they immediately endorsed her.

Also quickly jumping aboard were U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the darling of leftists, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the front-runner to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown next year.

Garcetti introduced Feinstein at a Beverly Hills fundraiser Tuesday night and denounced any Democrat who might challenge the senator.

“This cannibalistic approach, that somehow we should be at each other’s throats right now … is wrong for Democrats and what California should be doing,” the mayor said.

What they should be doing, he said, is fighting Trump’s policies.

Hours earlier, speaking to the Sacramento Press Club, Garcetti left open the possibility of his running for governor next year.

“I’m going to take a little bit more time to think about it,” he said when asked.

I asked Feinstein whether she had been tempted to just step away from politics and relax in retirement. She was elected California’s first female senator in 1992 after serving 10 years as San Francisco mayor. She ran for governor in 1990 and lost narrowly to Republican Pete Wilson.

“That’s really not me,” she replied. “I really do care. One thing I really care about is where the country is going right now under this president.”

When she saw the TV footage of Las Vegas mass shooting victims, she said, “it just struck me between the eyes. I want to do something about it. I’ve got a bill that makes sense.”

Her bill would outlaw “bump fire” stocks that turn semiautomatic rifles into virtual machine guns. The Vegas killer had 12 such firearms.

“I’ve made mistakes and learned from them,” Feinstein said. “My experience and ability to work with people have really improved. If it’s possible to get things done, I can do it. I’m a problem solver rather than a problem maker. I’m not a grandstander.”

But has politics passed by this pragmatic centrist as both parties veer to their extremes? Let’s hope not.

We still need savvy, thoughtful, gutsy people to make democracy work. We’ve got too many loudmouth grandstanders.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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