California Democrats further torn after seeing Sen. Feinstein’s return to Washington

Sen. Dianne Feinstein departs a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Hart Senate Office Building.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) departs a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington on Thursday. This was Feinstein’s first appearance on the Senate floor after being absent for almost three months due to illness.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

As she approaches retirement age, Democrat Donna Perkins understands reluctance about telling Sen. Dianne Feinstein what to do as she winds down her career.

After all, California’s senior senator has already announced that she would not seek another term — and some argue that the calls for her to step down earlier are rooted in misogyny and ageism.

But after seeing news coverage of Feinstein’s return to the nation’s capital last week, in a wheelchair and still weak after a nearly three-month absence from Washington as she recovered from shingles, Perkins is more concerned than ever about the 89-year-old senator’s ability to represent 39 million Californians.


“I don’t want to be like that, right? I’m getting ready to turn 65. I want somebody to say, ‘Hey, Donna, you know what? It’s time to pass the torch.’ It’s sad, but it’s not fair either,” said Perkins, 64.

Perkins was among about a dozen Democrats who gathered at the Highland Park branch of a Los Angeles library Thursday evening to watch a livestreamed U.S. Senate candidate forum featuring two of the top Democrats running to replace Feinstein in 2024, Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland and Katie Porter of Irvine. The event was sponsored by the progressive California Working Families Party. Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank was invited to participate but declined.

Questions about Feinstein’s future have been swirling for quite some time over concerns about declining mental and physical capabilities. Concerns grew after she was briefly hospitalized earlier this year and, while recuperating at home in San Francisco, missed votes that resulted in a holdup for confirming some of President Biden’s judicial nominees. Feinstein is a member of the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee, which was deadlocked because of her absence, resulting in Democrats delaying votes on nominees that could not win support from Republican senators.

Feinstein flew back to Washington on Wednesday, though she has been advised by doctors to take on a lighter workload. She cast critical votes Thursday to advance judicial nominees who lacked Republican support. And yet, among some California Democrats, Feinstein’s return did little to quell concern about her likely effectiveness in the Senate, heightened further by the Democrats’ razor-thin majority.

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“Everybody is so diplomatic. I think she needs to take care of herself, and you can’t take care of yourself with that intense responsibility. Something comes first — either taking care of yourself or taking care of your constituents,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a major Democratic fundraiser based in San Francisco. “I know she likes being there, I know she’s a fighter. But I feel like for the bigger picture, for a better future for all of us, I think she should resign. It’s an act of honor to do that.”


Tompkins Buell has helped raise campaign money for Feinstein in the past and her husband once worked for the senator.

Others expressed similar concerns about representation, while declining to weigh in on what Feinstein should do.

“I’m not a doctor. I certainly haven’t seen Sen. Feinstein in person. I don’t feel like the best person to make that judgment call,” said former San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Jane Kim, who is now the executive director of the Working Families Party and moderated the Senate candidate forum.

Environmental planner Eddie Isaacs, 42, pictured in a Highland Park library after watching a candidate forum.
Environmental planner Eddie Isaacs, 42, wants to see how Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recovery progresses before deciding whether he believes she ought to step down before her term is over.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

“I think it’s important we have a U.S. senator to be able to fulfill their duties every day in the U.S. Senate because we have a tied vote,” Kim said Friday. “It is critical for our party and our movement that we’re able to move forward on decisions around judicial nominees in particular and keep business moving in Washington.”

Eddie Isaacs, 42, said after seeing the images out of Washington, he was concerned about her health but wants to see how Feinstein’s recovery progresses.

“I think we should see how she does in the next few weeks and make a decision at that point,” he said. “Frankly, I didn’t realize it was deteriorating as bad as it had been the last three months.”

The environmental planner, who lives in Little Tokyo, said that while he was hopeful Feinstein would continue to recover, if she continues to decline — as he has seen elderly relatives do in his family — she ought to retire.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom was more supportive. During a news conference about the state budget Friday, Newsom said he was happy his longtime ally appeared to be on the mend.

“That’s personal, I’m glad she’s recovering,” he said. “I’m glad she’s back.”

On a political level, Newsom added, he’s pleased Feinstein is well enough to return to casting votes to confirm federal judges.


Newsom sidestepped a question about whether he was concerned about her ability to represent Californians given her frail health, saying: “I look forward to her continued recovery. It was wonderful to see her in Washington, D.C.”

The Democrats running for Feinstein’s seat were even more sanguine.

“She’s a friend, so I’m always going to be concerned about her health, and I hope she has a continued speedy recovery because we need to confirm judges, among other things, and she is a powerhouse appropriator that I’ve worked with for years to deliver for California,” Schiff said in an interview in his congressional office Friday.

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He added that he thought that if her seat were to become vacant and Newsom were to appoint someone to serve the remainder of her term, Republicans would block anyone from replacing her on the judiciary panel. Republicans prevented another Democrat from being temporarily assigned to fill her seat on the committee while she was recovering.

Porter and a spokeswoman for Lee both said they were glad that the senator was feeling better and wished her well.

It’s a careful dance for elected California Democrats to weigh in on the future of a trailblazing woman who has held elected office for nearly all of the last 53 years. But frustration with Feinstein began growing years ago over whether she was distanced from modern progressive priorities.

Bill Przylucki, 38, pictured in a Highland Park library after watching a candidate forum.
Ground Game L.A. Executive Director Bill Przylucki, 38, wanted to see a new senator before Sen. Dianne Feinstein became ill earlier this year.
(Seema Mehta / Los Angeles Times)

Bill Przylucki, 38, recalls protesting outside of a Feinstein fundraiser in Hancock Park during her last reelection campaign in 2018 and feeling as if she was out of touch on issues such as housing and climate change.

“Even back then, it was quite clear that when you tried to dig in with any specific issues, we’re not really getting anywhere,” said the Atwater Village resident, who is executive director of Ground Game L.A., an organization focused on electing progressives, helping the homeless and protecting the environment.

“I’ve been frustrated for a long time. I’m eager to see new leadership,” he said.

Mehta reported from Los Angeles and Oreskes from Washington. Times Sacramento Bureau Chief Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report.