June 17, 2021 (SFChronicle.com)
Progressives aren’t just boiling mad at Sen. Dianne Feinstein (again). Some want the senator, who has been in office since 1992, to resign.
They’re frustrated that Feinstein continues to balk at killing the filibuster to pass a voting rights bill. But even more so, they’re baffled that she said she doesn’t think democracy is in jeopardy.
“If democracy were in jeopardy, I would want to protect it,” Feinstein recently told Forbes. “I don’t see it being in jeopardy right now.”
That is tough for some Democrats to swallow. Republicans have introduced almost 400 voter suppression bills across 48 states. Through last month, 14 states have passed 22 laws that would restrict voting, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Those stark figures are one reason that Feinstein’s San Francisco neighbor, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wrote to her House colleagues this week to say that “sadly, the clock is ticking on our democracy with respect to the sanctity of the vote.”
Pelosi knows there aren’t many ticks left for Democrats who want to pass federal voting rights legislation that would supersede state laws making it harder for citizens to vote — many of whom are people of color.
Senate Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, wants a vote next week on the For the People Act, a sprawling voting rights bill that Pelosi shepherded through the House. It would create uniform voting laws for the states, including requiring them to allow ample early voting and mail balloting.
But even though Democrats control the Senate, they do not have 60 votes to get over a certain GOP filibuster. And Feinstein, like West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, isn’t ready to ditch the filibuster, which allows a minority of members to block legislation.
“My focus is on getting things done and solving problems,” Feinstein said in an emailed statement Wednesday to The Chronicle. “I strongly support S. 1, the voting rights bill, but the votes simply aren’t there.”
“We have to find a path forward on voting rights,” Feinstein said. “We must respond to any new laws across the country that make it harder to register and harder to vote.”
While the legislation may not have the support of Senate Republicans, many of its key provisions have bipartisan backing nationally among likely voters, according to a Data for Progress poll in April.
Some California Democrats wish Feinstein would leverage her power as the senior senator from the nation’s most populous state to translate that popular support into votes on the Senate floor.
So far, she hasn’t. And voters are getting fed up. Feinstein’s support is its lowest ever, according to a May survey by the Berkeley IGS Poll. Just 35% of voters statewide approved of the job she’s doing; 46% disapproved. It is a long fall for a politician who was once the state’s most popular Democrat.
Irene Kao, executive director of the left-leaning grassroots group Courage California, said many of the group’s 500,000 members in the state have had it with Feinstein.
“This is just another example,” Kao said, “of how she’s out of touch with her constituents and not paying attention.”
The challenge for critics is that Feinstein isn’t up for re-election until 2024. So some, like David Campos, vice chair of the California Democratic Party, want her to step down.
“I personally think that she should consider resigning,” Campos told The Chronicle, emphasizing that he was not speaking on behalf of the state party. “I don’t see how anyone who makes that statement can represent the interests of this state in the U.S. Senate, as a California Democrat.”
“The fact that she’s unwilling to see what’s happening and to do anything about it tells me that she’s not in a position to really represent, not just me, but the interest of all Californians,” Campos said.
Few elected officials in California have dared to publicly criticize Feinstein. Many view her with respect for a pioneering career that began more than a half century ago when she joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She was the first woman to serve as the city’s mayor and, along with former Sen. Barbara Boxer, the first women to represent California in the U.S. Senate when they were both elected in 1992’s “Year of the Woman.”
But her latest comment was enough to push some elected Democrats to speak out.
“I’m sorry to say this because she is a Democratic Woman icon… But, enough. What world is she living in?” tweeted Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.
San Jose Assemblyman Ash Kalra was similarly aghast.
“This is a California Senator,” Kalra tweeted. “Unbelievable but, unfortunately, not surprising from Feinstein. Incredibly wealthy and unbelievably out of touch with the state of our democracy.”
This is a California Senator. Unbelievable but, unfortunately, not surprising from Feinstein. Incredibly wealthy and unbelievably out of touch with the state of our democracy. https://t.co/prjgnJDq0y— Ash Kalra (@Ash_Kalra) June 11, 2021
But no other California elected officials publicly addressed Feinstein’s remarks. That includes Vice President Kamala Harris, who on Wednesday was headlining an event in Washington as part of her new role as the White House’s point person on voting rights. Her office did not respond to a request to comment on Feinstein’s words.
The public silence among California elected officials was similar to what happened after what many considered Feinstein’s weak handling of the case against Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The end of the nomination hearings culminated with Feinstein giving a hug to then-Republican Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“That was the hug of death,” Yvette Simpson, CEO of the national progressive organization Democracy for America, told me on my “It’s All Political” podcast this week. “I lost a lot of love for her then.”
Said Simpson after Feinstein’s latest comment: “She needs to resign.”
That is unlikely at this point. But it won’t stop California grassroots organizations from continuing to turn up the heat. Left-leaning activist group Indivisible, which counts 500,000 Californians on its mailing list, is circulating a letter among its 300 organizations in the state asking Feinstein to take a stronger stand and urging its supporters to contact her office.
“We think that our senior senator needs to step up to the challenge of the day and recognize it now,” said Aram Fischer, a leader in the Indivisible community, “rather than wake up after the 2022 midterms when we’ve had elections overturned.”
Joe Garofoli is the San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer, covering national and state politics. He has worked at The Chronicle since 2000 and in Bay Area journalism since 1992, when he left the Milwaukee Journal. He is the host of “It’s All Political,” The Chronicle’s political podcast. Catch it here: bit.ly/2LSAUjA
He has won numerous awards and covered everything from fashion to the Jeffrey Dahmer serial killings to two Olympic Games to his own vasectomy – which he discussed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” after being told he couldn’t say the word “balls” on the air. He regularly appears on Bay Area radio and TV talking politics and is available to entertain at bar mitzvahs and First Communions. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and a proud native of Pittsburgh. Go Steelers!