One important statewide race in the June 5 primary is for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Dianne Feinstein. California’s senior senator has more than 30 primary opponents, but only a few show up in the polls with any significant support. And the most serious Democrat among them is State Senator Kevin de León, who represents Los Angeles in Sacramento and until recently was the Senate leader. But de León is facing a 20 to 1 disadvantage in fundraising to Feinstein.
KCRW’s Warren Olney recently spoke with de León about why he’s running. (Olney’s interview with Feinstein is here).
KCRW: Dianne Feinstein has been in the Senate since 1992. She’s a Democrat just like you are. Why is it that she should be replaced?
Kevin de León: Warren, I think that California is long overdue a debate, at least 25 years long overdue, a debate on our values, on our issues. I’m not running this race as a symbolic challenge to the establishment authority. I’m running to lead. These are very tumultuous times in our nation’s history. In fact, I think one could argue, justifiably, that these are very dangerous times in our nation’s history, given who the president is today. I think we need someone who will lead from the front lines, not from the sidelines, and I think that Democrats, as well as Republicans, every Californian who’s a voter does deserve to have a debate today. We’re long overdue.
KCRW: Are you saying that Senator Feinstein is too old?
de León: No. This has nothing to do with age, and ageism should never play a role in electoral politics. I believe everyone has a right to run, regardless of their age. This is about values and about California. California has changed quite dramatically in the past quarter of a century and issues that we care deeply about, whether it’s climate change, whether it’s the environment, whether it’s growing this economy and putting people to work in the clean energy space, whether it’s the issue of immigration and Dreamers, we need folks now who will fight and champion these issues. The reality is California is home to the largest number of immigrants and Dreamers, both undocumented as well as legal permanent residents, yet this work is being outsourced to other senators in other parts of the country.
KCRW: Wait a minute, let me interrupt you. What do you mean it’s being outsourced? Do you and Senator Feinstein really have any substantive disagreement on these issues at all?
De León: Without a question, Warren.
KCRW: Which ones?
De León: I’ve never espoused to build a border wall with our friends to the South and she had committed a vote to build a wall on our border way before Donald Trump ever became President of the United States. On the issue of Proposition 187, back in 1994, I walked the streets. I was an activist and advocate back in the day. You know my history back in 1994. It took her an entire year to come out publicly in opposition to the measure- in fact just a few weeks before the election. I’d never called the United States the, our country, the welfare system for Mexico. That’s all in the public domain. That’s why I believe now that we just need a different choice, a contrast the contrast is huge on a whole variety of issues, whether it’s voting for the war, two wars both Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact we have spent $6 trillion on both wars. This is$6 trillion we should have spent on health care, Medicare for all. We should have spent it on clean energy, debt free college education for young men and women. We should have spent it on research and development, precision medicine to find a cure for Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s. So the votes that take place in Washington on our behalf are very consequential, and I believe that she’s disconnected to what California is today.
KCRW: You are used to a Democratic super majority in Sacramento. You go to Washington D.C., the U.S. Senate runs very much on seniority, not just on party affiliation, but on seniority. She has more seniority than almost any other member of the Senate. That is power. You would have none. We already have one freshman senator in Kamala Harris, why do we need another?
De León: Warren, I would argue that seniority means nothing unless you use it and seniority is not destiny because seniority doesn’t guarantee results. This is about judgment, this is about courage, and this is about leadership. Arguably two of her greatest accomplishments are the assault weapons ban as well as the Desert Protection Act. Both measures she passed in 1994, two years after she was elected. Seniority is meaningless unless you’re willing to take the hard choices and the risk to move an agenda that improves the human condition for all individuals, whether it’s Medicare for all, whether it’s immigration reform and making sure we protect our Dreamers.
KCRW: Has Senator Feinstein failed to do her job?
De León: Well I think that over a quarter of a century we still have yet to have any immigration reform. She is a senior member of the Judiciary Committee and as a senior member of the Judiciary Committee with the largest number of Dreamers in California, with the largest number of legal permanent residents, as well as TPS, as well as undocumented immigrants, we should be the leader.
KCRW: What will your main priorities be that are different from Senator Feinstein’s, if in fact you’re elected to replace her?
De León: Climate change. I think that California should lead the nation, because we lead the world today, but not Washington D.C. when it comes to climate change and how we actually grow this economy and put people to work. In California we have created 500,000 clean energy jobs. That is 10 times more clean energy jobs in California than there are coal mining jobs in all of America. So climate change: number one. Number two: the issue of healthcare. Right now we have 3 million uninsured and we have millions more that are actually folks who have insurance but they’re uninsured because of copayments, out-of-pocket expenses are much too high, too expensive in correlation with their annual income salary. So healthcare for all, Medicare for all is an important issue, and then immigration reform. We have to have immigration reform, to get it off the table once and for all. It should never take a primary challenge to get our California senior leadership to do the right thing.
KCRW: Senator Feinstein supports the kinds of measures against climate change that you mentioned. She’s in favor of Obamacare, if not Medicare for all, she certainly has been in favor of immigration reform. Again, you’re suggesting that she’s ineffective, she’s unable to accomplish those things even though she supports them as you do?
De León: Well Warren, being supportive of similar issues is different from rolling up your sleeves and doing the work that is necessary. That is two different things. We are supportive of a whole variety of measures but one thing is to be supportive and another is to roll up your sleeves and stay committed and being the leader on the issue itself.
KCRW: Is it good that California is seen as fighting against the federal government, given all the ways in which California needs the federal government in order to function?
De León: I can tell you this and there’s another contrast point between Senator Feinstein and myself. I made a decision from day one, and you’re right Warren, it was somewhat controversial, but I made a decision from day one that I would resist Donald Trump’s policies. I identified him as a clear and present danger to the great state of California, and I don’t think I’ve been proven wrong. He has moved forward policies against Dreamers against immigrants against our environmental laws. He’s pulled out of the Paris Accords, he’s attempted to undermine California’s clean air and climate change policies, so I think I made the right call and the right decision.
KCRW: Well does that mean the same as a continuation of the angry, divisive partisanship that has characterized American politics now for the past few years?
De León: No, not at all whatsoever, because as the leader of the California State Senate I have found negotiated deals with our Republican counterparts, whether it is the infrastructure tax for California where a secured Republican votes, whether it’s the extension of cap and trade. I had the experience working with Republicans, engaging with Republicans. That’s a lot different, Warren, than voting to confirm Trump appointees who are actually at this moment dismantling the federal government as we know it today. That’s not bipartisanship.
KCRW: Kevin De León great to talk with you. Thank you so much for taking the time.
De León: Warren, thank you so much.