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Patt Morrison Asks: Barbara Boxer is leaving the U.S. Senate but not the struggle

Patt Morrison Asks: Barbara Boxer is leaving the U.S. Senate but not the struggle
Sen. Barbara Boxer speaks in her office in the Hart building in Washington on Dec. 2. (Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call)

By this time next week, another woman will occupy the desk in the U.S. Senate where Barbara Boxer sat for more than 20 years. It's the same seat once occupied by liberal lions Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. But it was marching, not sitting, that created Boxer's big national moment: In 1991, she and several other Congresswomen walked from the House over to the Senate to demand that senators seriously consider Anita Hill's sexual harassment charges against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.  Boxer arrived on Capitol Hill during Ronald Reagan's first term and leaves it as Donald Trump is about to be sworn in as president — an exit that wasn't quite what she'd expected.

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How did your plans for your post-Senate life change at about midnight on November 8?

I was scheduled to go on the Chelsea handler show the morning after the election. It was supposed to be a celebratory moment -- what did it mean for women, what it means for women, what it means for boys, what it means for our nation and the world to have Hillary Clinton as president.

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And instead I found myself thinking, can I really get myself up and to that show? I decided I couldn't let her down. It was a transformational moment because she looked at me basically in tears and said, How do you get through these political losses?

I found a voice inside that came from all those years of experience and heartbreak in myself , and that has sent a signal to me that now, in these next several years, I can be a motivational voice to those who feel so discouraged and so disappointed and so powerless – which they are not.

People voted for Donald Trump, and he has won the electoral college. What did they want that they saw in him?

Well, people voted for Donald Trump, but many more, millions more, voted for Hillary Clinton. And he wound up with well, well, well under 50%.

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But if you're asking me why did people vote for Donald Trump, it's better asked of them. But my observation is that they just wanted change. A lot of people felt empowered by some of his supporters who were on the very far right -- nationalist, white supremacist type of people, which is a very sad part of his coalition. And a lot of them felt empowered because of his talk against women. It's a potpourri of reasons.

One of the arguments among Democrats right now is whether to resist across the board with Trump, or to cooperate for damage control on things like confirmation hearings.

My own view is that you pick your battles very clearly and if you can achieve something for the people, achieve it. There'll be enough to plant the flag on, believe me: on immigration, on tax cuts for the wealthy, on cuts to the things people hold dear -- Medicare, Social Security, health care.

You can't do every single thing. And in terms of confirmation, there is no filibuster of confirmation except Supreme Court justices. So I think the thing to do is to point out, through hearings, the [nominee's] qualities pro and con and let the American people see that. The Republicans have done it, we've done it -- everything's on the table when you want to be in the cabinet, and it's got to be discussed.

After the election, you introduced legislation to abolish the electoral college. Amending the Constitution on something like that has tremendous hurdles. Was this to make a point, or do you think it could seriously happen?

We need to have the winner of the popular vote to be the president of the United States, and there are various ways to accomplish it. The reason that I introduced the legislation was to make that point that it needs to be gone, or changed so that the winner of the popular vote wins.

But the real movement on this is occurring in states, where there are state compacts, where states come together and say, we pledge to throw our electoral votes to the winner of the [national] popular. And if you get states to agree to do that, that have 270 electoral votes, that's done

Your own position as United States senator was for much or the country's history a position that was filled by state legislatures, until there was a constitutional amendment that said senators are now chosen by popular vote.

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Yes, it was into the 1900s before we were able to finally elect senators, so we try to become more and more democratic. We keep making the country more democratic but there are moves to take us backwards, like blocking the vote in minority communities. So it's constant vigilance to expand the franchise.

Why do you think that on the two occasions this century that it's happened, that the Democrat has won the popular vote but lost the electoral college, that it has been the Democrats?

Because the system is set up in that way, that the smaller states have a bigger voice. And it turns out in our country, the smaller states are more the red states. The other time the founders leaned against the big states was giving two senators from each state regardless of population. I represent a state with 40 million people. We have two senators, and tiny states with less than a million people have two senators. It's not really fair, to be honest, but that's built into the Constitution.

You've been quite active on environmental issues in your entire Congressional career. We just saw a decision about the Dakota Access Pipeline, addressing some of the concerns of the people who were protesting at Standing Rock.

First of all, what the Army Corps [of Engineers] said is that they are not ready to grant a permit in the current configuration, that they are opening up the environmental impact statement, which will include alternative routes.  This is an enormous victory for the Indian nation and for everybody who believes that drinking water has to be protected.

I don't think there's any doubt that the Army Corps that is working for Donald Trump will try to reverse it, but it'll be very hard because now the legal situation is moving forward with a new EIS. We can't say it's a permanent victory but we can say it is a major victory.

You've often worked on environmental issues. What are your concerns about how different the literal landscape could look?

What's fascinating to me is that a lot of the landmark laws were signed into law by Republicans, including Richard Nixon, who signed among other things the Endangered Species Act.  There are moves to overturn that law that are going on right now, at the end of this Senate Congressional term. I am very concerned that our landmark laws will be gutted.

What I've learned over the years is something I didn't realize when I was younger. I thought when you win, you win, that's it – you have the clean air act? You won – we'll always have clean air. It doesn't work that way.

There's a song whose words go like this: "Freedom, freedom is a hard-won thing/you have to work for it, fight for it/day and night for it/and every generation's got to do it again."

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I don't know whether you've ever met Donald Trump, but if you were in a group of senators Trump asked to meet with, what would you tell him, given all these concerns you've expressed?

You can't say all of this in a tweet or in a quick conversation. I would need to sit down and say, Look at America before you were born. Look at the foreign policy that has happened before you paid attention. Because he seems to be someone who's of the moment and he thinks that everything is happening now and there's no history.

When you pick up the phone and call Taiwan [the call Trump took from Taiwan's president was said to have been carefully arranged], it may sound easy to you but we don't have enough time to go into why it's very problematic.  When you call [leaders] who are abusing human rights, these have ramifications. But you can't just tell someone that – you have to write it and deeply explain it, and that's what I would do.

You're one of the elders in the Democratic Party. As it tries to rebuild, are you going to take part in meetings or consultations about that?

I think the Democratic Party has a winning combination right under its nose. If you married the Bernie people with the Hillary people, you've got it

That's not a shotgun wedding?

It's a wonderful wedding, because there's no disagreement -- it's just a matter of who stressed what. Bernie stressed the populist economic issues, Hillary stressed the importance of diversity and standing together. You merge these two, you have a winner. And that's the type of coalition I think we need to build.

You and Dianne Feinstein broke the mold: California was the first state to send two women to the United States senate at the same time. What difference does it really make, having more women in the House, having more women in the Senate?

It's very important in a democracy that people with power reflect the constituency. It's very important because you can't represent people if you only see the country thru your particular lens.

And the lens of a woman raising a family, the lens of a woman having a hard time getting equal pay for equal work, the lens of a single mom, has to be married up with all the issues that the men bring which are fair enough on their own right. Now there are 21 women, so we've made progress.

On a policy level?

Oh, absolutely. The violence against women laws, sexual harassment laws; We've changed pension laws, Social Security laws. Oh, without a doubt.

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