CLAREMONT, CALIFORNIA — Kevin de León is cool in that way your dad is cool, which is to say he’d be insanely cool for the United States Senate. This particular Sunday, he’s sporting bright white Adidas sneakers, which are somehow scuffless even after the morning’s Central American independence parade. He’s wearing jeans; he left his tie at home.
De León is running late, but the 40 or so people gathered at a Persian restaurant in Claremont, California, are unbothered. When he finally arrives, a half hour behind the official schedule, he spends another 15 minutes personally greeting everyone gathered inside.
The restaurant is weird in a welcoming way. There’s one like it in your town, I’m sure. The decor is a dizzy alloy of “wedding party” and “grandma’s living room,” complete with soft floral carpet, streamers hanging from the ceiling, and bright pink bows tied around every chair. A guitar, a tambourine, and a small drum sit in one corner on a small stage. (The owner tells me they have belly dancing nights, that my husband would love that.)
As one of the organizers ticks off his legislative accomplishments in the California State Senate, de León picks up the tambourine to punctuate the introduction with cheeky metallic rattles.
De León is here to talk about his bid for Senate. He’s running against Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and thanks to the state’s jungle primary system, which sends the top two primary vote getters to the general election regardless of party, voters in the Golden State will have a choice between the two Democrats come November.
“I think we can all agree that although we are all Democrats, we’re also different, too. We’re many shapes. Some of us are dreamers, progressives. Others are pragmatists,” de León told the crowd gathered Sunday. “[And] I think we can all agree that these are very dangerous times in our country.”
De León ticks off other dangerous times — Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act — and continues, saying, “I believe strongly we need someone on the frontlines, not the sidelines. Someone who has our values. Someone who will speak truth to power and will clearly identify what we need to do in Washington D.C. to improve the human condition for all human beings, regardless of who you are, regardless of where you come from.”
Pragmatists, by definition, work with what they’ve got. By working with what she’s got, with Republicans in the Trump era — even just occasionally, and even in good faith — Feinstein is compromising herself, he argues, and in turn compromising the people of California.
While de León is proud of the fact that he worked, when possible, with Republicans in the state legislature, much of his campaign is built on the sense that times have changed. Now, he says, with this administration, compromise is unpractical, unpatriotic, and unacceptable.
I'm running for the U.S. Senate because you deserve a seat at the table.
— Kevin de Leόn (@kdeleon) October 15, 2017
The moment de León knew he had to run, he tells the crowd Sunday, was last August, when Feinstein — or, as he refers to her, the “senior senator from our state” — said people should be “patient” with Trump.
“I think we have to have some patience, I do,” Feinstein said at an event in San Francisco last August. “It’s eight months into the tenure of the presidency… we’ll have to see if he can forget himself and his feelings about himself enough to be able to have the empathy and direction that this country needs.”
Her comments came just three weeks after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“I said to myself, there is a huge disconnection from what is happening to everyday Californians and to our realities and to what their realities are in Washington D.C.,” de León tells the crowd now, 13 months later. “[That] shows a huge disconnection from what is happening with our immigrant families, with our LGBTQIA communities, with our Muslim communities, with working families who have no access to quality health care.”
After he finishes speaking, de León pulls an empty chair from a table and leans against the back as he listens to questions. Later, he’ll pose for selfies with a group of older women, and then for more selfies specifically for Snapchat with a group of college Democrats who attended the event.
For now, though, he answers questions about climate change (he’ll get California to 100 percent renewable energy), immigration (we need comprehensive reform, and we’ll abolish ICE), and charter schools (we should hold them to the same standards as public schools). One young voter says he had to put college on hold after contracting Lyme disease and wants to know how de León can help (he’s not sure yet, but thanks for educating him).
In many ways, de León’s race is a quintessential 2018 story. The primary season was littered with progressive upsets, a momentus few months for the left that began with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and continued with Andrew Gillum in Florida and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, among others.
But de León is not the next Ocasio-Cortez. For starters, he’s been in politics for more than a decade, first in the California Assembly and later as a state senator. For more than three and a half years, he served as the State Senate president pro tempore, and his pitch to California voters includes a long list of accomplishments in the legislature, including unprecedented investments in renewable energy, immigration reform, and gun control.
Feinstein, for her part, is also not Joe Crowley, the Democratic congressman bested by Ocasio-Cortez in June. While Crowley was a powerful figure in his own right, considered a candidate for the next Speaker of the House and a kingmaker in New York politics, Feinstein is her own whole thing.
Feinstein was first elected in 1970 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a job marked most interestingly by a lunch with Jim Jones. Eight years later, she became mayor, serving for ten years, and four years after that, she was elected to the United States Senate. The rest is history. Now, after more than two decades in the Senate, she serves as the ranking member on the powerful Judiciary Committee, which recently wrapped up a confirmation hearing with Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s pick to fill Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vacant seat.
At 85, Feinstein is already the oldest sitting senator. Should she win in November, she will be 91 years old at the end of her term. This is the thing about Feinstein: It isn’t that people in California don’t like her, per se, it’s that some believe her time on the Hill has run its course.
“I’m probably ready for Feinstein to move on,” one California voter, Callae Walcott, told ThinkProgress as she waited outside President Obama’s Orange County rally on Saturday. “I think she’s been a great leader, but I think she should find a way to gracefully empower another generation. I think that’s what I would hope she would do, but I don’t think she’s going to do that.”
At 51, de León would be more than a full decade younger than the average senator, and his story, as he tells it, is the story of California — and the story of America. He’s a Latino man. His mother, who had a third grade education, came to the United States from Mexico. She worked as a housekeeper. Feinstein, on the other hand, as de León briefly noted Sunday, is the ninth richest member of Congress, worth about $53 million.
Feinstein’s long record in the Senate is also worth considering. She’s hardly the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, voting with Trump a quarter of the time, which is about average among her colleagues on the left, though nothing close to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) leading record of voting with Trump only 7.9 percent of the time. (For context, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) votes with Trump more than 60 percent of the time, followed by Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-SD) who votes with Trump about 55 percent of the time.)
Still, until recently, Feinstein supported the death penalty and did not support legalizing marijuana. She doesn’t support abolishing ICE, nor does she support Medicare for All, despite recent polling that found 70 percent of Californians support a single-payer system. (Kamala Harris, the state’s junior senator, is a co-sponsor of a Medicare for All bill in the Senate.)
We know the United States spends almost twice as much on health care as other industrialized nations. We’re paying more and getting less, while millions of Americans get left behind. We need a better system. #MedicareForAll https://t.co/wXmRLWgkwK
— Kevin de Leόn (@kdeleon) September 9, 2018
But perhaps most damning issue for Feinstein as she faces reelection is that pesky Supreme Court nominee.
“I’m sorry for the circumstances, but we’ll get through it,” Feinstein recently said to Kavanaugh after protesters interrupted his confirmation hearing. “The purpose of these protests is to disturb, and the purpose of the disturbance is to stop the testimony, and the testimony clearly has to continue on. So we don’t have a lot of choices.”
The moment did not sit well with many on the left.
“Many Democratic senators went after him. Feinstein did not. She really soft-peddled it, and she tried to say, ‘Well I’d like to work within the system,’” said 71-year-old Roger Kirk, who I met while he was canvassing for congressional candidate Gil Cisneros. “That’s not the way it is. I wish it was, [but] that’s not the way it is. It’s become very, very adversarial, and until that changes we need people who will forcefully take positions for the good of our country. Not for the good of the people in power, but for the good of our country.”
That, Kirk said, is why he’s voting for de León. That, too, is why the California Democratic Party endorsed de León over Feinstein, Debi Evans, a member of the state party’s executive board, told ThinkProgress Sunday.
“[We endorsed him because of] his values and the change that needs to happen. Dianne Feinstein has served us well. It’s now time for a change. Kevin can bring a change,” Evans said. “When I see Dianne Feinstein apologizing to Brett Kavanaugh, I mean, she was kind of tough on the questions, but you don’t start out by saying, ‘I’m sorry you had protesters,’ which is our right… I don’t see him doing that.”
The protesters at the #KavanaughConfirmation are patriots trying to protect the rights of every American threatened by this nominee. We need to support them and stand with them @SenFeinstein, not apologize for them. California deserves a senator who will #ResistNotAssist.
— Kevin de Leόn (@kdeleon) September 5, 2018
Certainly, de León has vowed to be a different kind of senator, should he manage to topple Feinstein in November.
“Seniority means absolutely nothing if you don’t know how to use it,” he says at the restaurant in Claremont Sunday, several minutes into answering a question about how he’d protect LGBTQ rights if elected. “Seniority means nothing at all whatsoever if you continue to play country club rules in Washington, D.C. They will continue to defeat us.”
He says that in 2006, Feinstein voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the D.C. Court of Appeals, that she voted for the Iraq War and never said she regretted the vote, and that she has voted for “60 percent of” federal nominees, which he says is “unforgivable.”
The Feinstein campaign pushed back against the critiques from the de Leon camp Wednesday, emailing ThinkProgress a quote from 2017 when Feinstein said she regretted voting for the Iraq War — “It is the decision I regret most, and I have to live with it,” she told Mother Jones — and noting Feinstein supported Kavanaugh on his cloture vote, but voted against the nomination.
3 currently serving Dems supported Kavanaugh on his *cloture* vote: Carper, Feinstein, & Nelson.https://t.co/fH9BS7GIa4
— Taniel (@Taniel) July 10, 2018
A spokesperson also suggested de León was aligned with Trump on certain issues, where Feinstein was not.
“While State Senator Kevin de León claims to push for progressive values, he and President Trump both support a proposal to extract and sell water from the Mojave Desert aquifer, which would threaten the entire desert ecosystem,” they said. “Meanwhile, Senator Feinstein’s Desert Protection Act protects 7 million acres in Death Valley and Joshua Tree, and working with President Obama, she protected 1.8 Million more acres in the Mojave Desert.”
De León doesn’t buy into those kinds of arguments. “I think Democrats want a change. They just want a different voice,” he says. “These states are not entitlements. It’s not a monarchy. We have to have elections, not coronations.”
And maybe — just maybe — California voters are starting to agree with him.
Feinstein trounced de León and 30 other opponents in the nonpartisan primary election earlier this summer, winning more than 44 percent of the vote. De León came in second with a little more than 11 percent. Polling in the weeks after the primary had Feinstein up by more than 20 points.
But a new poll last week found that de León had cut Feinstein’s lead in half, with 37 percent of voters saying they support Feinstein, 29 percent saying they support de León, and 34 percent saying they were unsure. De León’s support is particularly strong among newer and younger voters, the poll found.
That’s at least anecdotally backed up. One millennial voter, William Kamaski, told ThinkProgress he was in the minority among his friends and community in supporting Feinstein.
“I am sort of in the minority in my community,” Kamaski said, “but I really worry about, you know, division and people just running as far as they can to the right or the left, and Dianne Feinstein may be like, you know, just another plutocrat rich lady who pulls strings and all that, but it’s like, she knows how government works and that’s really important to me.”
This article has been updated to include comments from Sen. Feinstein’s office.