California’s Feinstein takes lead role in court fight

October 6, 2018
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FILE - In this Oct. 31, 2017, file photo, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks during a Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Feinstein is being challenged for her seat by fellow Democrat, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, in the upcoming California election. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The national spotlight is glaring on California U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her November re-election bid as she takes a leading role in the fight over Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination.

Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have condemned the Democratic senator’s handling of sexual assault allegations against Kavanaugh, alleging she kept them secret until just before the vote for political gain. Likewise, her Democratic challenger, state Sen. Kevin de Leon, initially said Feinstein waited too long to act.

A senator up for re-election in today’s tense political climate would appear vulnerable to such stinging criticism. But Feinstein, 85, is well-known to Californians, who have sent her to Washington five times, and hitting her carries risks for both sides.

De Leon has angered some Democrats by siding with Republicans and any criticism he lobs invites scrutiny of his time leading California’s state Senate when a #MeToo reckoning hit the capital. Republicans, meanwhile, would be stuck with the more liberal de Leon if she loses.

“Do you want to alienate one of the few Democratic colleagues left who can actually talk to Republicans?” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California.

Feinstein has defended her handling of the letter, saying she was respecting Christine Blasey Ford’s requests for confidentiality. She denied Republican charges her office leaked Ford’s letter accusing Kavanaugh of sexual assault to the press. Kavanaugh denies her allegation.

“At no point did I or anyone on my staff divulge Dr. Blasey Ford’s name to press. She knows that and believes it, for which I’m grateful,” Feinstein said Monday. “I find it interesting that the same critics who last week condemned me for not releasing Dr. Blasey Ford’s letter against her wishes are now suggesting I did leak the letter.”

De Leon has shied away from criticizing Feinstein’s handling of the situation after initially saying she showed a “failure of leadership” by waiting to share Ford’s letter.

He’s argued Feinstein wasn’t aggressive enough in her early questioning of Kavanaugh, particularly given her knowledge of Ford’s allegations. De Leon praised California’s other senator, Kamala Harris, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who sought to delay Kavanaugh’s first hearing.

“You saw junior senators really carry the torch and move forward in a very assertive way that was expected of the senior member,” de Leon said.

He also hit Feinstein for her 2006 Senate Judiciary vote to advance Kavanaugh’s nomination to the appellate court, though she did not support him on the Senate floor. Her actions “opened the door” to place Kavanaugh on “the farm team for the U.S. Supreme Court,” de Leon said.

De Leon has faced his own accusations that he was slow to act against perpetrators of sexual misconduct in the state capital. De Leon led the Senate last fall when more than 100 women signed a letter calling out a pervasive culture of sexual harassment.

De Leon has forcefully pushed back, noting he introduced a resolution to expel a senator accused of misconduct who was his former roommate and that he hired outside investigators to handle misconduct claims.

Feinstein faces a fellow Democrat in the Nov. 6 election because of California’s unique primary system that sends the two candidates who receive the most votes to the general election regardless of party.

Feinstein leads in every public opinion poll and has far more money than de Leon. She was first elected to the Senate in 1992′s ‘Year of the Woman,’ inspired in part by anger at the Senate’s treatment of allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

De Leon, 51, won the California Democratic Party’s endorsement in July, reflecting his appeal among executive board activists. He authored California’s “sanctuary state” law that survived a court challenge from the Trump administration and Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed his bill setting a goal to get 100 percent of the state’s electricity from carbon-free sources by 2045.

He alleges Feinstein’s stance on immigration helped paved the way for Trump’s policies of family separation and focus on building a border wall. In an online campaign ad, he recounts his life as the son of a Guatemalan mother who immigrated to the United States illegally.

The ad includes two short clips from 1993 and 1994 showing Feinstein speaking negatively about people who entered the United States illegally.

“We deserve better leadership — there’s too much at risk,” de Leon says.

Feinstein and her defenders point to her long record advocating for immigration reform and her support for a permanent fix for “dreamers,” the nickname given to young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. She opposed a 1994 California ballot measure that cut off many public services for people living in the country illegally.

Feinstein has largely avoided engaging with de Leon, instead focusing on her tenure fighting for an assault weapons ban, protecting California’s environment and defending access to health care. Feinstein said in an ad ahead of the primary that she supports creating a public health option. De Leon specifically supports a single-payer health care system.

Voters may not have a chance to see the two side by side ahead of the election.

Feinstein’s team has pledged she’ll debate de Leon, but nothing has been scheduled. Her campaign manager, Jeff Millman, said she’s busy with her duties in Washington.

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