On November 3, 1992, the number-one single in the US was Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road,” Rage Against the Machine released their debut album, and Kendall Jenner was exactly negative three years old. Also on that day, Dianne Feinstein, the former mayor of San Francisco, won a special election for one of California’s US Senate seats.
She’s won reelection four times since, the last three times easily, in the process becoming as entrenched as any figure in the Democratic Party. But this year’s election may be different. Whereas she’s previously faced off against a Republican opponent in the general election, the results of this year California’s top-two open primary voting system has given her a fellow Democrat for an opponent: California State Senator Kevin de León.
In the crowded primary earlier this year, Feinstein got 44 percent to de León’s 12, but signs are already pointing toward a heavily contested election. Since the primary, endorsements have been rolling in for de León, including one by the California Democratic Party itself earlier this month that gives him access to additional funds, which he’ll need against Feinstein’s massive war chest.
A few days after the endorsement, I sat down with de León for coffee in Sacramento for a chat about the endorsement, where he differs from Feinstein, and why he thinks he’s got a shot.
VICE: You just received the California Democratic Party’s endorsement. What, to you, does that indicate?
Kevin de León: It says that Democrats in California want bold, new leadership in Washington. Leadership that won’t be on the sidelines, but on the front lines. Leadership that won’t plead for patience and conciliation, but rather do everything within their power to protect our economic prosperity, our progressive values, and our people. Now’s not a time to ask for civility, and the current leadership we’ve had in California has been tepid, at best.
When you say it’s not a time to ask for civility, what do you mean?
Well, not like “go crazy.”
What do you mean then?
When [Dianne Feinstein] makes comments such as needing “patience” with this president, and by doing so, he could perhaps be a good president in the future... [he shakes his head]
That takes me to your calls to abolish ICE. It’s a growing catchphrase among Democrats, but what does it mean to you?
[Feinstein] helped create ICE. She voted for the Homeland Security Act, which followed the Patriot Act. She voted for both. These measures came in the wake of 9/11, a tragedy that shook this country to its core, and ICE’s focus was to make sure we didn’t have human traffickers, sex traffickers, drug traffickers, those who traffic in pedophilia and cybersex and pornography, and the issue of “transcontinental criminal organizations.” But ICE has lost its mission, and it’s now exclusively focused on mothers and fathers. On the mother who is selling tamales on the street corner. They have become politicized by the executive branch, by this White House, by [Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and [White House aide] Steven Miller, to be a political arm of the White House. That’s why we need to abolish ICE. We need to dismantle it and reorganize it.
Dismantling and reorganization is not new to Washington. It happens. Every nation in the world has the right to protect its own sovereignty, including the United States. But this is not about allowing terrorists or so-called criminal felons to be in the country—border crossings are at a 50-year low on our southern border. This is about an organization and police agency that has become highly politicized and weaponized by this White House.
Broadly speaking, how do you think Dianne Feinstein is failing Californians?
Her values and principles are out of touch with today’s California. Voting for two wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. Voting for the Patriot Act and the Homeland Security Act. Voting for the then-largest Republican tax cut in the history of the United States of America, which she benefited from greatly herself. Voting to allow 13-year-olds to be prosecuted as adults without mercy. Voting for a wall way before Donald Trump ever talked about building a wall. [This is a reference to the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which approved a fence, not a wall.] In February, voting to allow the federal security agencies to spy on American citizens without a judicial warrant. If you believe you have the goods on somebody, you go before a federal judge and present the evidence, and if the judge believes there’s enough, they’ll grant you that warrant. But now, with no checks and balances to do so... it’s quite extraordinary that she voted for it with this president in office.
[In 2009], she voted against EFCA, the Employer Free Choice Act. Given the Janus decision, which in effect dismantles the power of unions throughout the country, had we had [EFCA] in place, the blow would have been a lot less. She voted against that, and was only a handful of Democrats to do so. [Feinstein withdrew her support from EFCA after cosponsoring the bill, which was not voted on.] [In 2002] when George W. Bush was president, she asked him to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which allowed the government to intervene on the longshoreman strike, and to tear apart the work stoppage at the ports.
She has voted for 60 percent of all of Donald Trump’s judicial nominees to the federal bench. [The GOP] strategy is very clear. Less or no experience is better as long as they’re young, even with no courtroom experience. Get them young, and get them appointed with a lifetime on the bench. If you’re 30 or 35 years of age with no experience, even if the American Bar Association says you're unqualified, they don’t care. Because you’re going to be there until you’re 60, 70, 80 years old. And she has voted for 60 percent.
OK. Do you want more?
In terms of the Democratic Party, do you think there’s a drive to steer the party left and kick out moderates?
No, not at all. I don’t think it’s about going to the left or going right, I think it’s about moving forward with policies that make sense. The narrative is very simple, and makes it easy to write people off. “Oh, they’re going more to the left, they’re off the grid.” I was the leader of a [state] senate conference where we had progressives, liberals, moderates, and conservative Democrats, and through consensus, they voted me to be their leader. It is true that today we have more progressives who want a voice within the political party that exists, which is the Democratic Party. I think it’s always a good to have voices that reflect the people.
For instance, I’ve always said that climate policy is not progressive policies or Democratic policies. They’re policies that Democrats believe in because they believe in facts and science, but the issue of climate is not a partisan issue. Climate impacts everybody across the board. White, black, brown, racially-mixed, Latino, Asian American, middle-class, working-class, poor, destitute, homeless, very wealthy, 1 percent, it impacts all of us. But the point I want to make is that these are policies that I’ve always moved forward on, which I have viewed as common-sense policies that have a positive impact on the human condition of all voters, regardless of who they are and where they come from.
I know that might not fit the narrative box about the rise of Bernie and the progressives. I was progressive before I even knew who that guy was. All of a sudden it’s become a thing now, and hipsters like him. But I was like that before I even knew who the guy was.
How do you fight for policies such as climate change when you run up against people who don’t believe in the basic facts?
There are many red states that [will agree] if you approach them in a way where you show them the value economically in adopting climate change policies and renewable energy. In California, we’ve created 500,000 jobs in clean energy space, so that’s ten times more jobs in the clean energy space in California alone than there are coal mining jobs in all of America. If you’re a Texan, or from Louisiana or Indiana, or any other red state, you see that you can actually create economic growth. You can create jobs, put your constituents to work so they have a real opportunity to succeed. Why wouldn’t you want to adopt these climate change policies? Unless the reality is that the fossil fuel industry has you under their thumb.
As political leaders and elected officials, it is your moral responsibility to seek every policy imaginable that will protect your constituents. I believe the political leadership of the Republicans, especially in coal mining states, have abandoned the coal miner to protect coal mining. That’s two different things.
Is there something to the Democratic Party not offering something to voters? If someone says, “Here’s science,” but also doesn’t follow that with any tangible benefit...
That’s a good point. When I took on the issue of climate change, one thing I noticed was that many folks who spoke about it were always speaking about ice caps melting, the arctic melting, a lot of scientific jargon spoken in certain circles. What I did, at least here in California, is I said we’re going to take the climate issue and going to convert it into economic growth and jobs.
In Lancaster, California, which is primarily a Republican area in north Los Angeles County, there’s a new plant there. It’s called BYD, Build Your Dreams. It’s a Chinese company. I was there early last year for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and there were about 1,000 people there. It was awesome to see these heavy-duty towing trucks, and these double-decker red busses, and those busses that have the waffle accordion thing in the middle... all electric. And about 800 workers were there, all union. I asked Stella Li, the president of BYD, just out of curiosity, “Why did you decide to build the assembly plant in California?” And she said, because the climate change policies in California. They want to be closer to our markets, understanding that where California goes, the country will go, so they want to establish a beachhead here.
"When people don’t have a good job to take care of themselves, or are underemployed, or unemployed, it impacts your psyche."
I remember asking [House Majority Leader] Kevin McCarthy, who was there, I remember asking him, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I’m here like you, to cut the ribbon.” I said, “But Kevin, you spend your time in Washington always undermining clean air and climate change policies, so I find it ironic you’re here.” “Well, it’s about jobs.” “I know it’s about jobs. These jobs were created from California leadership and the California legislature, not in Washington.” He gave his speech, I gave mine, and I said anyone in Washington who seeks to undermine California climate change policy leadership is undermining your ability to put a roof over your child’s head, put food on the table, and clothes on their back. So, that’s a real job someone benefits from, as opposed to a powerpoint presentation of scientific data points.
When people don’t have a good job to take care of themselves, or are underemployed, or unemployed, it impacts your psyche. It impacts who you are, your self-esteem. It impacts your own self-identification. It creates problems within family structures. It creates divorces, people have lost their children, their houses. Opiate addiction. And then when you get someone who comes in, and smells that fear and anxiety and panic, and sees someone who has low self-esteem for all the issues I just described, he can come into a room and say, “I’m going to get you a job, and make America great again. And I know why you’re unemployed, or got divorced, or lost your kids and family and healthcare. It’s because of those people that look like them. They look different, they talk different, they come from a different country. They’re not one of us.” It’s easy to start a movement like that.
You recently called for Washington leaders to begin impeachment proceedings on President Trump, in part saying that what he’s done has far surpassed what Bill Clinton was impeached for.
Articles of impeachment can move forward without question because of this President’s un-American position when it comes to Russia and Vladimir Putin. His actions have been nothing less than treasonous. It almost seems like we have a “Manchurian Candidate” in the White House, and I’ve said this for the past two years. If an ex-KGB agent, and the security apparatus of the Russians, has a dossier on President Trump, then you have a compromised president. Our national security interests can be compromised because of the leverage they have over him.
But back to the comparison of the Clinton impeachment proceedings, what do you think it is about the ability of Republicans to fight in a way that Democrats don’t seem to be willing to?
Republicans have historically demonstrated they will fight for a cause they believe in. I’m asking for Democrats in Washington to demonstrate not just an equal sense of passion, but to surpass that passion. There’s too much at stake. A woman’s right to choose what she wants to do with her own body, workers’ rights, voting rights, human civil rights, LGBTQIA rights, immigrant rights, the democratic values of the greatest nation of the world. We need Democrats to step up, demonstrate that power and leadership, and show that fire and passion. Tweets and press releases are not going to do it.
You are for Medicare for all and “free public education.” How you going to pay for those proposals?
We spend over half of our federal discretionary dollars on the US military. It’s not a question of fiscal constraints, it’s a question of values and priorities. Investing in human capital has made our country the greatest nation in the history of mankind. Period. We have the best and brightest students. We have the best public and private institutions in the world. But if our young students are getting into college and graduating with a mountain of debt, and as they enter their 30s and 40s are still paying principal and interest, and with the housing crisis they can’t look forward to buying a house, an apartment, a condominium, a co-op in New York or wherever it may be, then we have our values and priorities misplaced. It’s a generational issue happening right now. It’s not an issue of where do you get the money.
This article has been updated to clarify Feinstein’s past positions on border fencing and the EFCA.
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