Column: Yes, Feinstein is the oldest U.S. senator. But she should be able to retire on her own terms
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she hasn’t thought about retiring soon despite some assertions that the 87-year-old lawmaker should step aside because her cognitive abilities have allegedly declined.
“No, I haven’t,” she told me in response to a brief question about whether she’d considered retiring early. Her fifth full term doesn’t expire until the end of 2024 when she’ll be 91. She’s currently the oldest U.S. senator.
There are also six other octogenarians in the Senate — all men.
The universal assumption is Feinstein won’t run for reelection when her term is up. I didn’t bother to ask. She’ll tell us when she’s ready.
“I don’t feel my cognitive abilities have diminished,” she said in answer to my question about whether she felt they had.
“No, not really. Do I forget something sometimes? Quite possibly.”
That seems to be the main rap on her: short-term memory loss.
During my roughly half-hour phone interview with Feinstein on Tuesday, she did repeat herself a couple of times after she’d moved on to talk about other things. That’s normal for many people, especially as they get older. But I hadn’t noticed it before in her.
Feinstein has always been very articulate — one of the most clear-speaking politicians anywhere — and still is. Her voice is strong as ever.
“People are willing to work with me across the aisle,” she said. “I’m respected. I have an effective staff … smart people. … There are a lot of good technical experts you can use to put programs together. …
“We do get things done and we do pass bills. You do get older, that’s true. But I have been productive.”
Feinstein talked about things currently on her plate. She just secured a $1.3-billion federal grant for the Purple Line transit extension on Los Angeles’ Westside. And she expects to secure $350 million for California water projects.
But “I’ve taken a few arrows lately,” she noted.
The sharpest dart came last week in a lengthy article by veteran reporter Jane Mayer in the New Yorker magazine. Mayer commended Feinstein for “taking on a range of powerful interests, from gun-rights groups to the CIA” during a “distinguished 28-year tenure in the Senate.”
There’s no doubt a Black woman should replace Kamala Harris in the U.S. Senate. But California, in all its diversity, deserves a Latino senator, too.
But she cited several anonymous sources — none of whom understandably wanted to be quoted by name — as saying that Feinstein’s “short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have.
“They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.”
Times columnist Erika D. Smith followed by writing that readers should urge Feinstein “to step down early … so that California will have two open seats in the U.S. Senate instead of just one.”
Smith noted that Gov. Gavin Newsom is being pressured by Black and Latino leaders to appoint one of their own to the Senate seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. One solution would be for “Feinstein to be selfless and retire early,” Smith wrote. That would allow Newsom to name two new senators.
“Now is absolutely the time to be an ally to communities of color and let another younger lawmaker represent the evolving values of this state,” Smith wrote. “For to adequately address the many longstanding, race-based disparities in everything from healthcare to housing,
California needs a Black senator and a Latino senator.”
Maybe California does. But that should be the voters’ decision — not just one man’s. Those Senate seats belong to the public.
Californians elected a Black woman, Harris, to the Senate in 2016. But she almost immediately began running for president.
There probably should be a Latino senator from California. Forty percent of California’s population is Latino. But the state has never elected a Latino senator.
In Sacramento, Gov. Gavin Newsom is bogged down fighting the surging pandemic and angering lots of voters no matter what he does.
One of the biggest criticisms of centrist Feinstein by liberal activists is that she’s too civil and mannerly. Not harsh enough on Republicans. Too willing to compromise.
That’s also why she has been an effective senator.
“I like to work in a bipartisan way,” she said. “Some people on the left don’t like that. But that’s what the Senate should do. It benefits the people.”
Feinstein was widely criticized by liberals for her handling — as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee — of the confirmation hearings for conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. They thought she was too soft. But there was absolutely nothing Democrats could have done to block Barrett from the court.
Feinstein handed her critics priceless fodder when, after the hearings, she congratulated committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) for well-run sessions. And then they hugged.
Her explanation: She was only complimenting the chairman for that day’s session, which involved just public testimony. Barrett wasn’t present.
“I shook his hand and he gave me a hug and I got holy hell,” Feinstein recalled.
“I felt very badly. It was a hard one for me. Because if I can’t have good relationships with someone simply because they’re a Republican — and Lindsey is the committee chair — that’s not good. I think civility and bipartisanship mean something.”
Feinstein later stepped down as the committee’s No. 1 Democrat.
Jerry Roberts, a former San Francisco Chronicle top editor and political writer who wrote a book about Feinstein’s stint as San Francisco mayor, says:
“She deserves great respect. She was a political pioneer in advancing the cause of equality of women in electoral politics and it is sad if not disgusting — as well as sexist as hell — to see and hear political operatives and hacks with no sense or regard for history attack and dismiss her.”
Agreed. She was the first female mayor of San Francisco and — along with Barbara Boxer — the first female senator from California. She passed the nation’s first assault weapon ban at great political cost.
Feinstein may be over the hill. But she has earned the right to decide on her own when to descend all the way without being pushed.
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