A coffee shop conversation with U.S. Senate candidate Kevin de León

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After a morning of attending rallies, shaking voters’ hands and posing for selfies with supporters, Kevin de León is hungry, so he asks to meet me at a coffee shop south of downtown Los Angeles. He orders a plate of fried shrimp with vegetables and custard for dessert.

Traveling the state as a long shot U.S. Senate candidate on a tight budget, De León says he eats at lots of greasy spoon joints like the one we’re in.

“You know, obviously, it’s not the best food when you’re on the road,” says De León. “And after an event it’s 11:30 p.m. at night, so you end up going to fast food joint because you are so hungry and so tired, but you have no choice.”

And de León knows he has to keep the pace up if he stands any chance of winning in November.

After all, he’s trying to unseat incumbent and fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein, who has represented California in the Senate for more more than a quarter of a century and whose name is synonymous with the state’s political clout.

But de León argues that after so many years inside the Beltway, Feinstein has lost touch with a changing California. He also says the senator is too moderate, polite and establishment for politics in the age of Donald Trump.

“I think you need fighters in Washington D.C. to fight against a president who has no soul,” says de León. “This is a battle for America’s soul. You need people on the front lines, not on the sidelines, who are playing country club rules with the Republicans .”

De León says he learned how to the a fighter growing up in San Diego’s working class Logan Heights neighborhood in the shadow of the Coronado Bridge. He was raised by a single immigrant mother from Guatemala who cleaned houses to make a living.

De León says that although life was hard, he wouldn’t change a thing about his upbringing. “It helped shape who I am today,” he says.

After graduating from high school, de León went to U.C. Santa Barbara, but soon dropped out. Looking back, he says he wasn’t ready for the pressures of college life.

He credits a job teaching English as second language to adult immigrants for giving him a sense of purpose. De León returned to school and graduated with honors from Pitzer College.

After working for the California Teachers Association, he was elected to the California Assembly in 2006, representing Hollywood and northeast L.A. One focus of his early work in the state legislature was increased funding for urban parks.

In 2010, de León ran successfully for the California Senate and become that chamber’s president pro tem four years later.

He says a willingness to dive into nitty-gritty policy details and learn from others were key to his rise in the legislature.

I’m like a sponge,” he says. “I like asking very difficult questions, and I like learning from folks who know so much more than I do. That’s how I learn.”

De León has fought for an unabashedly progressive agenda, like increasing the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, making California a sanctuary state to protect undocumented immigrants from federal immigration authorities, and most recently, authoring legislation that requires the state to phase-out fossil fuels by 2045.

It puts the fifth largest economy in the world on the path to clean energy,” says de León. “And I think in today’s age of Trump undermining the Paris Accords, and undermining California’s climate change leadership, this is a very clear message to Washington that, with or without your support ,we’re going to lead in California.”

Kevin de León addressing a an organized labor breakfast in the port community of Wilmington.
Photo: Saul Gonzalez(The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

But despite his achievements in Sacramento, de León acknowledges he’s not well-known statewide compared to Dianne Feinstein. If he’s going to win de León says he needs to woo two voting blocks

Undoubtably, I need a huge millennial vote and a huge Latino vote to make a difference during a non-presidential year,” he says. 

But as a cushion, de León also needs a good share of support from voters who usually vote Democratic and who might be open to his left-of-center, ant-Trump message and policies.

That’s why De Leon recently spoke at a breakfast for union members in the port community of Wilmington and spent time with voters like Irene Huerta, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“You know what? Kevin keeps it real,” says Huerta. “He’s not fake. He’s not phony. And he’s for the people.”

Huerta also raises an issue that hangs over the Senate campaign. De León is 51, more than 30 years younger than his 85-year-old opponent. De León doesn’t talk about the age difference, but his supporters do.

The age is a big deal,” she says. “You know, much respect to the Senator Feinstein, but it’s a new generation. Enough with the old politics. We need some new life in there.”

In a significant rebuke of Feinstein, the California Democratic Party has endorsed de León instead of remaining neutral between the two members of the same party.

But de León still trails behind the incumbent in both polling and fundraising. Earlier this year, Feinstein had more than $10 million in her campaign war chest, de León has less than a tenth of that.

De León says if he can just introduce himself to enough Californians in time, he thinks they’ll like him and his proposals and he’ll stand a shot at winning.

And de Leon has plenty of moxie. When I ask him if he’s made any political mistakes he can acknowledge, he shifts in the corner booth we’re sharing, pauses for a full ten seconds and then asks me to repeat the question.

After a few more seconds reflecting, he answers this way: “Perhaps a lack of patience. I wish I would have been more patient with certain members of the legislature, so we could have had a better working relationship.”

Others have criticized de León for getting too far ahead on some policy proposals, like an early version of his sanctuary state law that even some political allies thought was too liberal. De León says he has no regrets about any of his positions, and knows how to marry bold proposals to practical legislative skills.

“You believe in your values and move your values accordingly,” he says. “And you learn how to navigate tactically to get your policies across the finish line.”

As we wrap up our coffee shop conversation, I ask de León what he does with the little free time he has given his election schedule. His answer? A few hours here and there of staycation.

A staycation is sitting on the couch watching Netflix, he says. “Believe it or not, that is something I cherish.”

His favorite shows right now include “The Crown” and “Game of Thrones,” two series packed with plots about politics, power and how quickly the fortunes of underdogs can change.

Maybe that gives Kevin de León comfort as he campaigns against Dianne Feinstein in the final weeks of the election.