Column: Feinstein deserves a graceful exit, and she’d be wise to take it

Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Senate subway in Washington.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Senate subway on Capitol Hill in May.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s quick endorsement of Rep. Adam B. Schiff’s Senate candidacy was huge — far more significant than an ordinary endorsement.

But Schiff’s main Senate rival, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Irvine), seems to have a more salable message to voters.

A likely third contender, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland, hasn’t formally announced her candidacy. But when she does, she’ll face long odds.


At least that’s how I see the early jockeying for California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. Back to all that below.

First about Feinstein.

Virtually everyone expects her to not run for reelection next year. She’s 89 and would be 91 if reelected. Age itself is not the big problem, but her reported diminishing cognitive agility — and her ability to adequately serve a sixth full term — seems to be a disqualifier.

As perhaps an indication of her frailty, Feinstein watched President Biden’s State of the Union address on TV at home Tuesday night rather than attending Washington’s biggest annual event in person in the packed House chamber.

“She prefers to watch it on TV. She can see it the way most people see it,” said her spokesman, Adam Russell. She has both attended and watched from home in the past, he added.

Russell said Feinstein will announce her decision whether to seek reelection “in the coming months.”

Her decision seems obvious, however. The senator hasn’t given the slightest hint she might run. And she hasn’t raised any campaign money; her political kitty is almost dry.


But she apparently hasn’t informed even close insiders of any decision. “I don’t think she has told a soul,” one told me.

There’s a thought that Feinstein may think she’s doing a good job — actually, she is performing OK, thanks to a skilled staff — and hasn’t fully concluded that retirement is called for.

Will an intervention be necessary? If Feinstein did run, she almost certainly would suffer an embarrassing defeat — a sad ending to a fabulous career as arguably the best California senator ever. She’s the longest-serving California senator — 32 years — and is the oldest current senator.

She deserves to serve out the rest of her term with deference and respect.

Schiff and Porter are granting her that — Schiff in particular. The long-time Burbank congressman talked with her personally before announcing his candidacy and received her blessing.

But both Schiff and Porter insist they’ll run for Feinstein’s seat regardless of whether she steps aside.

All the major players are Democrats. A Republican has no chance of winning a Senate seat in deep blue California.


Pelosi endorsed Schiff one week after he announced — conditioned on Feinstein not running.

Schiff “knows well the nexus between a strong democracy and a strong economy,” Pelosi said in her statement. “He has focused on strengthening our democracy with justice and on building an economy that works for all.”

That undoubtedly was written by Schiff’s campaign gurus and, frankly, linking democracy with the economy — while maybe marketable in academia — seems like mixing metaphors when asking everyday voters for support.

But it echoes Schiff’s core message.

“Our democracy is under assault from MAGA extremists … and our economy is simply not working for millions of Americans who are working harder than ever just to get by,” Schiff said in his Senate campaign announcement. “The fight for our democracy and working families is part of the same struggle.

“Because if our democracy isn’t delivering for Americans, they’ll look for alternatives, like a dangerous demagogue.”

Schiff obviously is trying to cash in politically on the prominence he earned as a leading Democratic combatant of Donald Trump. He led the first impeachment of the then-president and was a member of the congressional committee that investigated the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection that led to Trump’s referral to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.


Fighting for democracy seems abstract as a campaign pitch. But if Trump does follow through with another presidential bid, the former president could offer a ripe target for Schiff, a House member since 2000.

“Early in the campaign ‘saving democracy’ is great for activists who are still afraid of Donald Trump,” says Democratic consultant Rose Kapolczynski, who was the chief strategist for former Sen. Barbara Boxer.

“But for voters, they care about their own lives and how a candidate is going to make it better. They’re going to want to hear about the economy, inflation, whether they can afford to send their kids to college.”

Porter’s message is aimed more directly at the voters’ top concern about the economy — coupled with distrust of the power elite in Washington and corporate America.

“California needs a warrior in Washington,” the third-term congresswoman said in her announcement. “I use whatever power I have to speak hard truths to the powers that be. ... That goes for taking on Wall Street and the big banks, Big Oil and Big Pharma.”

But Pelosi’s endorsement is priceless.

“Pelosi is not your average endorsement,” Kapolczynski says. The consultant says the San Franciscan’s “great credibility in the Bay Area could help level the playfield against any Bay Area candidate.” Like Lee.


“And having a woman who made history as speaker endorsing Schiff could make a difference for some [female] voters who are trying to figure out who to support.”

Pelosi also has a long, invaluable list of potential campaign donors Schiff could tap.

“She said she’ll do anything we ask her,” a Schiff insider told me.

Lee, who would be the Senate’s only black woman, doesn’t have much campaign money. Schiff and Porter have lots and are prolific fundraisers. Lee also is probably too liberal for even this state. And her age is problematic — she’s 76. Schiff is 62, and Porter is 49.

These Senate seats don’t come open often — maybe once a generation. It should be fun to watch.