As the leader of the California Senate, Kevin de León negotiated the fine points of a landmark effort on climate change. He helped balance the state budget. He wrote the California immigration law that’s drawn the ire of President Trump.
But Democratic voters who applaud those efforts don’t necessarily know that he was the one behind them. They may like the song on the radio, in a sense, but they don’t know the singer.
“It’s been a challenge,” said De León. “But once people make the connection with me, they say: ‘It’s time for a change, I’m with you.’”
That change would be historic, not seen in the last half-century of California politics: a candidate taking on and beating a U.S. senator from the same party.
The incumbent, Dianne Feinstein, has served since 1992. Few politicians in the state have her level of name recognition among voters and certainly not De León, elected to the Legislature in 2006 but who has never appeared on a statewide ballot.
Faced with that daunting prospect, the Los Angeles Democrat has a different goal for the June 5 primary: win enough votes for a second-place finish. Under California’s unique primary rules, De León simply has to outpace the other 30 people on the ballot.
“Under the right circumstances, the top-two primary gives the underdog candidate a second bite at the apple,” said Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, a nonpartisan campaign guide. “It's the second game in a two-game series. You start fresh.”
That his insurgent effort has a shot at pulling it off is a testament to what’s missing in the Senate race: a standard bearer for California Republicans. Had GOP leaders not abandoned the contest — if even one of the 11 Republicans on the ballot had sought the state party endorsement — De León’s candidacy would likely be all but over. Few campaign watchers believe he could have survived even a tepid but well-organized effort to consolidate Republican voters behind a single candidate.
Instead, the race seems likely to be left to Democrats, a choice between Feinstein’s vaunted legacy and De León’s ambitious agenda.
“It energizes me,” said De León, 51. “When I listen to voters’ hopes, goals, their complaints, I have an opportunity to share with them who I am and what my values are.”
He has spent the winter and spring foraging for support from Democratic activists in communities across the state, asking for help one vote at a time after a 12-year career in the Legislature. On a recent weeknight, De León was in the Sacramento suburbs and waiting for a chance to speak following others — a school board hopeful, a Superior Court judge candidate — to a meeting of local Democratic leaders in Placer County.
There, in a stuffy room where the fax machine was louder than the microphone and the audience fidgeted during the dinner hour, he hoped to win over the local party leaders who could help spread the word about his candidacy. There was little to suggest the spotlight of a statewide campaign.
"You've got 60 seconds left," said C.J. Jawahar, chairman of the Placer County Democrats, cutting off De León’s pitch long before it reached its crescendo.
"Sure, of course," he said with a smile and then skipping ahead in his prepared remarks. "I want to be respectful of your time."
Few state lawmakers have as diversified a public policy portfolio, which meant there was plenty to talk about. De León helped craft the law requiring California to cut greenhouse gas emissions to 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, as well as last year’s bipartisan agreement extending cap-and-trade, the program that actually reduces those emissions. He has called for the state to move to 100% renewable energy by 2045 and persuaded the state’s public pension systems to divest from more than a dozen coal-mining companies.
After several years of wrangling, De León persuaded Gov. Jerry Brown in 2016 to agree to background checks on ammunition sales and a ban on large-capacity magazines, part of a package of measures pushed forward in the wake of mass shootings.
And over the course of four years at the state Capitol, he worked on efforts to create a retirement savings system for low-wage workers in the private sector. The program could be open to statewide enrollment next year. For that, De León received the longest sustained applause during the speech to Placer County Democrats.
“This is an issue that should’ve been done at the federal level,” he told the crowd. “If they’re not going to deal with the issue of retirement insecurity and that silver tsunami that’s on the horizon, then we’ve got to do something ourselves.”
Inaction from Washington, especially in challenging an incumbent who’s seeking a fifth full term, is a familiar campaign talking point for De León.
“One of the biggest fallacies of this Senate race is the mythmaking of Washington, and the idea that it takes 25 years to understand the arcane complexities of legislating,” he said. “It’s puffery. It’s image-making.”
Though Feinstein failed to get the state party’s official endorsement — what De León saw as a victory for his effort and her supporters saw as much ado about nothing — she remains in the pole position in the race. A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found a 23-point lead for the senator over De León. Forty-one percent of likely voters were still undecided.
Far more challenging is the horizon for a head-to-head matchup, where De León’s sharp critiques of Republicans may not soon be forgotten.
"Kevin's taken a very antagonistic approach and painted Republicans with a pretty broad brush," said Mike Madrid, the former political director of the California Republican Party. “There's going to be a ‘hold your nose’ vote for Feinstein.”
Feinstein has successfully grabbed much of the Democratic establishment’s support too. She had $10 million in her campaign account at the time of the last report — including $5 million that she loaned herself — and was endorsed by former President Obama.
“De León has not made much of an impression, and it's because he doesn’t have the funds,” said Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist and now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Insititute of Politics at USC.
Exactly what De León was going to do when his state legislative career was over became the subject of intense speculation through most of 2017.
In a recent interview, he said that he had strongly looked at a campaign for governor. As that race became crowded with political heavyweights, it appeared the music in the game of political chairs ended without De León having anywhere to land.
That’s where things stood in late August, when Feinstein told a San Francisco audience there was a chance Trump could “be a good president, and that’s my hope.” The comment sent shock waves through the ranks of liberal and left-wing Democrats.
Feinstein’s quip may have hit especially hard with De León because it stood in sharp contrast to the Trump resistance effort that he had spent all of 2017 helping lead in Sacramento. That effort began even before the new president took office, when the state Senate hired former U.S. Atty. Gen Eric Holder as its “lead litigator” to challenge the new administration’s efforts on a variety of policies which Democrats worried would be soon undermined.
No part of that agenda received more attention, praise and criticism alike, as the bill De León asked Holder to helped draft that limits California law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration officials. The so-called sanctuary law was just days from being sent to Gov. Jerry Brown when Feinstein took the stage in San Francisco and offered her take on Trump.
De León said that when he read her remarks, he immediately thought of the fear in the immigrant community and the struggles of his mother, Carmen Osorio, who came to the U.S. from Guatemala. She raised her Los Angeles-born son as a single mother in San Diego’s Logan Heights neighborhood. Osorio died in 1994. That was the same year De León became an organizer in the effort against Proposition 187, the initiative linking immigration status to eligibility for state services, ultimately approved by voters but blocked by the courts.
The morning after Feinstein spoke about Trump, De León fired back. He said that Democrats — not mentioning California’s senior senator by name — shouldn’t “be complicit in his reckless behavior.”
“My phone blew up with so many folks saying, ‘Thank you for doing that,’” De León said recently. Seven weeks later, sensing an opportunity where perhaps one didn’t exist before, he announced he would run against Feinstein.
That decision and the resulting national media attention gave the veteran state legislator’s effort an early boost. But raising cash and voter awareness has been a challenge in the months since then. Even if De León succeeds in extending the campaign into the fall, he knows the question will ultimately come down to whether California would benefit from trading one of the Senate’s most senior members with a newcomer.