Kevin De León should be having the time of his political life right now. He’s become Democratic royalty by turning California into an anti-Trump bastion while president pro tem of the state Senate. He also did everything a modern-day progressive politician should during his career in both chambers of the statehouse: Stand with undocumented immigrants. Promote clean energy. Fight the gun lobby and #Resist at all times.
De León frequently cites that record when asking voters to help him topple Dianne Feinstein from her 26-year perch in the U.S. Senate come November. The Democratic Party’s progressive wing has never particularly liked DiFi, and right now even her supporters are having a hard time defending her handling of a letter that accused Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault in the early 1980s. (Another woman stepped forward this weekend with a similar claim.)
Still, that hardly matters. De León is almost certain to lose the race — and badly. Feinstein has heavily outpolled him in voter surveys since the two made it through the June primary; the latest major poll, released last week by Reuters/Ipsos and the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has 44% of likely voters favoring her, compared to 24% who plan to go with De León and more than 30% who plan to pick neither.
I’ve thought a lot about De León’s quixotic campaign for Senate since he announced it. I plan to vote for the guy. I hear from pals in Sacramento politics that he’s nice enough.
But the DiFi-De León race probably will be taught in future poli-sci classes as a case study in the perils of hubris and the wisdom of waiting your turn in the Golden State.
Like her or not, Feinstein is a lioness of liberalism in the narrative of California. She was one of the women who stampeded into Washington in 1992 in the wake of the Anita Hill fiasco. Feinstein and her colleague, Barbara Boxer, established a liberal beachhead in D.C. at a time when Pete Wilson was California’s governor and the Democrats became a minority in Sacramento. Voters appreciate that fact.
In truth, Feinstein aided this leftward tilt almost in spite of herself. Although she opposed 1994’s notorious Proposition 187, immigrant-rights activists have never considered her their champion. She supported the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and the 2008 bailout. As far as anyone knew, Feinstein also was in favor of the death penalty until it came out earlier this year that she’d changed her mind.
A less-experienced Democratic candidate with this résumé would face almost certain defeat in California today — just as similarly moderate Dems lost to younger, unapologetic leftists in primaries this summer in New York City, Boston and beyond.
De León has characterized Feinstein as out of touch, and more; he described her handling of the Kavanaugh affair as “gross misconduct” and a “failure of leadership.”
All’s fair in politics, and we should never worship longtime legislators as demigods. But De León hurts himself when he disrespects one of the pioneers of his party in California. Without Feinstein, De León and his fellow Young Turks simply wouldn’t exist. The Democratic old guard also still remains in power in California, and doesn’t take kindly to attacks on one of their own.
You might feel sorry for him, except that he brought it all on himself through his desire for power.
Critics have pounced on his other perceived failings: The state Capitol’s #MeToo scandal largely happened during De León’s reign as Senate president pro tem. He forged close bonds with Antonio Villaraigosa and Fabian Nuñez, fellow politicians who tried and failed to punch above their weight. The haters also denied De León the Assembly speaker seat in 2009, when he was in that body. “Too many Assembly members found De León's ambitious nature grating, eroding his support,” this paper wrote in 2014.
In that same article, De León said that the experience humbled him.
How quickly he forgot.
The sad thing is that if De León loses as expected in November, he most likely says hasta la vista to his political career. If Feinstein leaves office during her term, our likely next governor, Gavin Newsom, will pick anyone but De León because he and DiFi are Bay Area allies. If she retires six years from now, De León will be long forgotten and yet-younger Young Turks will be itching for their chance.
De León just didn’t know how to play the waiting game. He easily could have won the lieutenant governor’s race this year; the top two finishers are first-time candidate Eleni Kounalakis and relatively unknown state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa). He could’ve pulled a Newsom and bided his time in that role until something better came up than the Shemp of California’s executive branch.
Instead, De León is most likely a goner after November. Lo siento, Kevin.