Feinstein rises -- but faces a tough choice

As Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats celebrate their political ascendancy, Dianne Feinstein is front and center. And that is not always a welcome thing for members of her own party.

In recent days Feinstein has sent an unmistakable signal to the president-elect and the rest of Washington: California’s senior senator will not be taken for granted or hew to the party line simply because that might seem proper at the rosy dawn of a new Democratic era.

“I think people expect me to do what I think is the right thing,” Feinstein said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office. “I’ve been here now for 16 years, and there’s no sense in staying if I can’t express my view, if I just have to go along.”

At age 75, facing perhaps the last big political decision of her decades-long career, Feinstein finds herself in a familiar place: crosswise with members of her own party and enveloped in a swirl of will-she-or-won’t-she speculation about mounting another run for governor.


The choice is not easy. Feinstein has long dreamed of holding the state’s top job, and if she runs in 2010, she would be the instant front-runner. But running, and winning, would mean walking away from the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- a job never before held by a woman -- and giving up more clout than she has ever enjoyed on Capitol Hill.

Feinstein insists that the looming decision has nothing to do with her recent clashes. And those who know her well agree that she is following a path set long ago. After all, the former San Francisco mayor marked her first headline appearance at a state Democratic Party convention nearly 20 years ago by thumbing her nose at liberals and drawing a shower of boos for embracing the death penalty.

“She is someone who is persuaded by facts. She is not persuaded by ‘You’re supposed to do so and so because you’re a Democrat, or a woman, or a Californian,’ ” said Kam Kuwata, a longtime Feinstein confidant and political advisor. “She isn’t someone who walks into a meeting and says, ‘Give me the talking points.’ ”

Feinstein explains the latest dust-ups simply: She was asked questions, and she answered them directly.

First, she lobbed a shell into Obama’s lap by criticizing his surprise selection of Leon E. Panetta to head the CIA. Even though Panetta is a fellow Californian and a philosophical ally of Feinstein’s, the senator said she would have preferred someone with a more extensive intelligence background, as well as some deferential notice of the pending appointment. (After Obama called and apologized -- and Panetta assured her that he would surround himself with “very capable professionals” -- Feinstein said she would back the former Monterey congressman and White House chief of staff.)

Then she broke with Democratic colleagues and almost single-handedly undermined the party’s united front by saying that Roland Burris had a legal right to fill Obama’s Senate seat, even though he was appointed by Illinois’ scandal-tainted governor. Burris was seated Thursday.

The fit of pique and flashes of independence were nothing new for Feinstein. She regularly tormented the Clinton administration, when her party last held the White House, and has exasperated Senate Democrats by breaking with the party on more than one occasion, including supporting President Bush’s 2001 tax cut and the invasion of Iraq.

“A royal pain,” said one former Clinton administration official who worked with Feinstein on a number of matters and did not want to be identified criticizing the senator. Others were less reluctant.

“We’re in a revolutionary moment right now, where once-in-a-lifetime change may be possible,” said Ben Austin, a Los Angeles education consultant and political aide in the Clinton White House. “Democrats can’t squander this moment forming circular firing squads over things like courtesy phone calls.”

But the Senate’s second-ranking Democrat, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, was more diplomatic. “Dianne has always had an independent streak. I know it and appreciate it. Sometimes it helps, and sometimes it doesn’t. But I respect her very much for it,” he said.

Feinstein described a cordial, if not especially close, relationship with Obama. She endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton in the presidential primaries, though she was among those urging Clinton to reconsider her candidacy when Obama gained the edge. She opened her Washington home to the duo for a private meeting as Obama and Clinton began mending their relationship.

Last week’s phone call from Obama, Feinstein said, is already one more than she received from Bush in his eight-year administration. (The two talked extensively only twice, Feinstein said, when they flew to California together to observe wildfire damage.)

Feinstein said she wanted Obama to succeed and would work to help him do so. But the senator -- Obama’s elder by nearly 30 years -- offered pointed advice on how he should handle his new job. “I hope it will be governance from the center of the political spectrum,” she said. “I hope it will mean very practical problem-solving.”

Feinstein disputed any suggestion that she would serve as party renegade, noting that she votes with most of her fellow Democrats most of the time. Still, more conflicts seem certain.

She would like to resurrect the federal assault weapons ban she regards as one of her proudest achievements. The ban expired in 2004, when Republicans controlled Congress. But such an effort could put Obama and Democratic leaders in a difficult spot, given their efforts to appeal to a broader swath of voters. During his campaign, Obama largely shied away from the gun debate.

Some suggest that rather than become a headache for Obama and party leaders, Feinstein could serve as a bridge to Republicans who regard her as less of an ideologue than many of her Democratic colleagues.

Whatever her role, Feinstein will be in the thick of things as the new administration takes over. As chairwoman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, she is in charge of Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. She will be at the White House on Inauguration Day for coffee with the outgoing and incoming presidents and their spouses, then will accompany Bush and Obama back to the Capitol to deliver welcoming remarks and introduce Obama at his swearing-in.

With a former Senate colleague in the White House and larger Democratic majorities on Capitol Hill, Feinstein stands perhaps her best chance in years of moving a number of long-stalled legislative priorities, including strengthening regulation of energy markets, expanding embryonic-stem-cell research, and expanding the federal role in combating gang violence.

But even with her increased influence, Feinstein remains one of 100 senators. And those who watch her have long wondered whether that is enough.

“She’s more an executive personality than a legislative personality,” said Bruce Cain, who directs the UC Washington Center and has followed Feinstein’s career for decades. “There’s a reason she keeps flirting with the idea of running for governor because, temperamentally, I think that’s what she’d like to do. She’d like to run something.”

Feinstein has never made a secret of her desire to be California governor, a job she sought -- and almost won -- in 1990. When she bowed out of the 1998 race after more than a year of deliberations, Feinstein called it the most difficult decision of her life. Months later, she was still having second thoughts.

In 2003, she opted not to run in the election that recalled Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, though activists in both parties saw her as best positioned to keep the governorship out of Republican -- and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s -- hands.

Once more, the office is “hers to lose,” said state Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres, who is neutral in the governor’s race.

He figures Feinstein, alone among contestants, can wait months before deciding whether to make another try. Watching anxiously are a handful of Democrats already running or thinking seriously about the contest, including state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, Lt. Gov. John Garamendi, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

“She has the tremendous luxury because of her name ID, because of her support, because of her prominence in Washington,” Torres said.

Feinstein, whose Senate term runs through 2012, has indicated she is weary of repeatedly being asked about the governor’s race. “I’m very much looking forward to my work here,” she said in Washington, adding that there was still plenty of time to decide.