Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris’ contrasts expose broader shift among Democrats San Francisco Chronicle
WASHINGTON — They’re two of the most prominent women in the Senate and the Democratic Party. They both were born and made their careers in California, specifically the Bay Area. Nine times out of 10, they vote the same way.
But they also exemplify a growing divide among Democrats over the direction the party should take.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a barrier-breaking politician with a storied career and several substantial laws to her name. But she’s increasingly finding herself at odds with an activist wing of the party frustrated with her attachment to compromise and bipartisanship.
Sen. Kamala Harris is running for president after just two years in Washington and a lengthy career in California as a prosecutor. She has embraced a progressive posture, positioning herself as a fighter against the Trump administration.
The two have a respectful relationship and are rarely in conflict on issues. But their distinct approaches to the job speak to a growing clash of ideas within the party on the best way forward.
“I think the central question when you look at Harris and Feinstein is, do you advance your politics in today’s day and age by being the most compelling and forceful, or do you do it by being the best able to find compromise solutions?” said Aram Fischer, a San Francisco organizer for the progressive advocacy group Indivisible.
Feintein, 85, is a political legend. She was the first woman to be mayor of San Francisco, the first woman from California to serve in the Senate and the first woman to hold multiple leadership positions in the Senate. She’s been a leader on legislation on issues including gun violence prevention, protecting immigrant children and environmental protections.
But she’s also started to run into pushback for her positions on some of those issues today. A video of her chastising children who were urging her to support the Green New Deal went viral, even spawning an online “Saturday Night Live” sketch. She faced criticism for her handling of Palo Alto University Professor Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her while they were in high school, and for her handling of the hearing into those allegations before his confirmation.
Feinstein has also lined up with more California Republicans than Democrats on some key water issues, including teaming with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield on extending a controversial water law that environmental advocates say would threaten key river ecosystems. Its supporters say the extension is necessary for drought preparedness.
The five-term senator faced an unexpectedly strong challenge to her re-election last year from the left in former state Sen. Kevin de León, who earned nearly 46 percent of the vote in the November election. The California Democratic Party even endorsed de León, who won 65 percent of ballots from the party’s progressive-trending executive board.
Harris, 54, spent her first two years in the Senate establishing progressive bona fides ahead of her 2020 presidential campaign. Where Feinstein has shunned the Green New Deal resolution, Harris has endorsed it. She was one of only three Senate Democrats who voted against an immigration compromise that would have funded President Trump’s border wall and made cuts to legal immigration in exchange for protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation, a deal Feinstein supported.
Harris walked out of Kavanaugh’s committee confirmation vote in protest — as the committee ranking Democratic member, Feinstein stayed behind — and has pledged to vote against every Trump appellate court nominee. Feinstein has made no such promise, though she has opposed most of his nominees nonetheless. Through their offices, both senators declined to comment for this story.
The pair often vote the same way — 87 percent of the time, according to a vote-tracking project from Pro Publica.
But the difference in style is nevertheless substantive, as the Democratic Party similarly is facing a moment of reckoning on which direction it should take.
“When you look at how Feinstein operates, it’s a throwback,” Fischer said. “She may be the last person in Congress who believes compromise is actually possible in Congress, and I think Harris is of a newer time where, for most of her political career, compromise has not only rarely happened but it may not even be possible. ... The party looks more like Kamala Harris than Dianne Feinstein and that shift has been somewhat quick and very stark, particularly in the Trump era.”
While the differences don’t put Harris and Feinstein at odds directly, the question of the best approach is consuming Democrats in Congress. In the Senate, at least six Democrats have declared they’re running or are exploring a campaign for president. Many of them are running as progressives, while others like Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota have positioned themselves as centrists.
Across the Capitol, the House has been grappling with an influx of enthusiastic freshmen on opposite ends of the debate. The new Democrats who flipped Republican districts in the midterms, earning the party the House majority, are loudly centrist and promote the idea of bipartisanship. But several progressive members have gained star power by pushing the party further to the left, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House in their primary last year.
She has been one of the leading voices for the Green New Deal. After Feinstein’s brush with the young climate activists during which she said, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I know what I’m doing,” Ocasio-Cortez hosted a live video chat on Instagram in which she criticized people who say that “working on an issue for 30 years alone is ... what makes someone qualified to solve an issue.”
The New York Democrat told The Chronicle it was not specifically intended to attack Feinstein, but rather the mind-set she represented.
“I don’t think she’s the only one that’s made that argument,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “There’s this idea of just having worked on an issue for a long time as being that alone, like, a rationale. ... Obviously we have to draw on a lot of the work that’s already been done and the experiences of people and folks who have been doing this a long time. That alone I don’t think is sufficient.”
Ocasio-Cortez has found an ally in Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont, a progressive Democrat who has aligned with independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and endorsed his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Khanna campaigned for de León and wrote in an opinion piece that “on the big questions of this new century, Feinstein has been wrong.”
But Khanna said there is room for both approaches in the party and praised Feinstein’s record of policymaking even as they differ on policy.
“There are two aspects to being successful in Washington, D.C.: One is having a vision and proposing bold ideas, and then the other is having a record of getting things done,” Khanna said. “Kamala Harris has brought new ideas on criminal justice reform and moved the conversation on that, and I think Sen. Feinstein has had a record of achieving a lot of things, of getting things done.”
He also said that after her re-election, he sought Feinstein’s help on a legislative issue and found her to be “very, very gracious.”
“She said, ‘Ro ... public service matters more to me. I don’t hold grudges. I want you to know I’m happy to work with you on any issue for the state,’” Khanna said. “I thought it came from a wisdom of being there many years.”
Many of Feinstein’s colleagues also share a hesitation with the pressure from the left to embrace ambitious policies in the hopes of making rapid changes.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, long a Democratic leader on combatting climate change, said he opposes the Green New Deal because it’s not “real legislation.” The nonbinding resolution would put Congress on record not just as supporting a zero-carbon emission country in a decade, but also affordable higher education, health care, economic security and housing for all Americans.
Whitehouse noted the “activist tradition” in the party, from protesters during the Kavanaugh hearing to a group that has targeted Feinstein at her home in the past, to young undocumented immigrant activists assembling at the offices of Democrats who support their cause.
“I think that activist strain has huge promise and opportunity in terms of getting people engaged and interested, but for those of us who need to move to actual bills, we’ve got to focus on the task in front of us rather than on those things,” Whitehouse said.
Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, known for reaching across the aisle to Republicans to find common ground on issues, said that focusing on a campaign and focusing on legislation are mutually exclusive.
“It’s not possible to run for president and be a serious legislator at the same time,” Coons said. “Careening around the country to dozens of states, meeting tens of thousands of people, doing hundreds of media interviews and oh, by the way, raising hundreds of millions of dollars — you can’t do all that and seriously legislate.”
He said he’s thankful for Democratic Senate colleagues who opted out of a presidential run and hopes one of the field can strike the right balance between vision and results that require bipartisanship.
“We need folks who get Democratic values and are able to communicate to middle America ... married up to a policy development team back here that’s actually able to carry that through,” Coons said.