Kevin de León Struggles for Oxygen in Senate Run as Establishment Closes Ranks Around Dianne Feinstein

Aiming to do more than just push Dianne Feinstein to the left, Kevin de León struggles to gain financing or exposure sufficient to challenge the incumbent.

California state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, poses for photos in his campaign office, Thursday, May 3, 2018, in Los Angeles. In the California Primary election, de Leon is challenging fellow Democrat, incumbent U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, for her senate seat. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
California state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, poses for photos in his campaign office on May 3, 2018. Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP

Last Saturday morning, Kevin de León, the candidate challenging Dianne Feinstein for a U.S. Senate seat she’s held for more than half of his life, traveled to Carson, California, where the Teamsters were holding a town hall on wage theft against truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Sen. Bernie Sanders headlined the event; he and de León spoke briefly before it, but de León ended up getting no time to speak on stage. The head of the Teamsters local offered some nice words — “I hope he’s the next senator, we want somebody from the heart, not a 1-percenter” — but he just brought de León up for a sheepish wave at hundreds of port workers and their families.

After meet-and-greets with seniors in the San Fernando Valley and an event honoring the 50th anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, de León wound up at a phone bank in Culver City, where about 25 volunteers were making sure supporters were getting out to vote, some in Spanish. The phone bankers were hopeful that they could push de León forward once they informed voters. But it was slow-going. “No, I’m not from your doctor, I’m with Kevin de León for Senate,” one volunteer said.

De León told the group that when he engages voters in conversation, they switch to him. But California isn’t New Hampshire; retail campaigning can only go so far. “You’re an extension of me,” he said to the phone bankers. “You represent the values of our campaign of change.”

He spotted one volunteer in the room with a “de León for Senate” T-shirt, and his response underscored the low-budget nature of the campaign thus far. “You have a shirt! I don’t even have a shirt!”

Earlier that day, he’d been in El Monte, in the San Gabriel Valley, for a get-out-the-vote rally for Mike Eng, a candidate for state Senate. Addressing about 50 canvassers, de León kept his remarks to praising Eng, not even mentioning his own primary campaign.

De León had to awkwardly share the spotlight with Eng’s wife, Rep. Judy Chu, who, like most members of the California delegation, has endorsed Feinstein.

Chu, a member of the Progressive Caucus, appreciated how Feinstein, traditionally a centrist, has been forced to the left on a host of issues: from health care (where she now endorses a “Medicare at 55” bill, though not the single-payer plan de León supports), to immigration (where she has taken the most leftward position in every vote this Congress), to the death penalty (which she now opposes). “Senator Feinstein’s positions have moved, clearly because of the challenge from Kevin,” Chu said.

Did that mean she appreciated the primary challenge?

“I appreciate the results!”

United States Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., gestures while speaking at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., speaks at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Aug. 29, 2017.

Photo: Jeff Chiu/AP

The campaign so far has delivered better results for the progressive movement than it has for de León. At a juice bar in Burbank before the day’s campaigning, de León, the former leader of the California state Senate, related his uphill challenge against Feinstein to that of another man in a hurry: a former state senator named Barack Obama. “Here’s this guy who decides, Now I’m going to run for the presidency,” said de León, 51. “And you have much of the Democratic establishment saying, Who do you think you are? They’re like, You haven’t paid your dues. Either A, we’re not going to be supportive of you, or B, we’re going to outright trip you up.”

De León was getting wound up. “Maybe there’s some folks saying, ‘How nice, how visionary, how idealistic. I love your ideas, I love your vision, I love the way you connect. But do you have a shot, dude?’”

The dude did have a shot. But the 44th president spent many months stuck well behind Hillary Clinton before hitting a tipping point, a moment when the electorate collectively realized that Clinton was actually beatable, and Obama might just be the one to do it. To watch the de León campaign on the Saturday before the primary election is to watch someone still waiting for that tipping point to arrive.

Polls show de León well behind Feinstein, who has recalibrated her positions amid the first challenge from her left in her Senate career. If the polls are to be believed, de León is not even guaranteed to make the top two, among the 32 candidates on the ballot.

De León’s campaign is clearly geared to just survive the first round of voting.

De León’s campaign is clearly geared to just survive the first round of voting on Tuesday. Feinstein has spent millions to deliver a knockout blow; a cash-strapped de León and his allies have spent more strategically, out of necessity. De León knows there’s only one way to create that moment where ideological allies reluctant to support him suddenly see him as viable: “Getting into the runoff! And that’s why they don’t want me in the runoff. They’re hoping that a Republican gets in the runoff.”

It’s a bit odd to hear a state Senate leader, someone at a political apex in Sacramento, talk about going up against the establishment. But the differences in background between Feinstein and de León reflect the social divide in a state which, as much as any other, bursts with extreme wealth and extreme poverty.

De León grew up in a downscale Latino neighborhood in San Diego called Logan Heights, sharing a one-room apartment with a single mother who cleaned other people’s houses for a living. He worked in immigrant and labor organizing before entering political office. “Whether you’re white, Latino, African-American, Asian-American, [or] racially mixed, poverty is poverty,” he told me. “Everyone wants an opportunity for their kids to succeed.”

De León decided to run, he said, when he saw Feinstein appear before the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco last August and appeal for patience with Donald Trump. “The question is whether he can learn and change,” she said. “If so, I believe he can be a good president.”

To de León, that represented Feinstein’s position of privilege and an ignorance of the threat of Trump, particularly to immigrant families. You wouldn’t expect Feinstein, as de León did at a press conference in San Jose last Friday, to describe the separation of immigrant families at the border as abduction and kidnapping. “It demonstrated to me the huge disconnect between her world and the world that she travels in and the world of hard-working families that have suffered and will continue to suffer greatly under this president,” de León said.

In some ways, the fact that California contains such multitudes is at the heart of de León’s difficulty thus far. Running statewide in California is equivalent in population to running for president of Canada, with a much thinner political culture and media covering it. People are either deep in their own socio-economic struggles, or in the rarefied air of high-dollar fundraisers and national politics. Even de León, with a high-profile position like state Senate leader, isn’t well-known across the state.

Raising that profile costs money, as free media barely notices it’s Election Day. And by the end of March, Feinstein had built a 20-to-1 fundraising advantage. “We don’t have the resources. We can’t match her,” de León said. Some of that is due to Feinstein’s personal wealth; she’s already loaned her campaign $5 million. In addition, as state Senate leader, de León relied on fundraising from both labor and corporations; neither can give directly to his federal race (and the corporate fundraising has led some to question de León’s progressive bona fides).

But the state political class has also reportedly closed ranks around Feinstein. Two of de León’s top staffers distanced themselves from him shortly after he announced. Longtime donors who might want to give to de León must weigh angering not only Feinstein, but the vast political network of consultants around her, who work with most of the major elected officials in the state.

“They say I want to be with you, but I don’t want to go on a limb and get caught on the wrong side.

“They say I want to be with you, but I don’t want to go on a limb and get caught on the wrong side,” de León said.

The California Labor Federation, and unions representing service employees and nurses, have endorsed de León, as has billionaire Tom Steyer and the climate justice organization Labor unions threw $677,000 into the wind of television ads recently, which doesn’t travel far in California’s expensive media markets.

Other election subplots have captured more attention, from the battle to win back the House (and avoid a Democratic lockout of the top two in key districts) to the governor’s race, where charter school proponents have dropped $15 million on Antonio Villaraigosa. Political observers believe that de León will only get real financial backing from labor if Villaraigosa loses the primary, allowing Gavin Newsom to sail to victory against a Republican opponent. Otherwise, unions will battle Villaraigosa, and de León will get left out.

As a result, the race has been in a sleepy interregnum. That’s why one of the 12 unknown Republicans on the ballot, or grassroots leftist candidates like Pat Harris, David Hildebrand, and Alison Hartson, could theoretically jump up and surprise. Meanwhile, Feinstein has run a bounty of ads showing her challenging Trump in a televised discussion of immigration, and at gun safety rallies fighting to restore an assault weapons ban. She’s faced no challenges in TV ads on her record of supporting domestic surveillance or the war in Iraq, among other issues at odds with the liberal base. She rolled out an early endorsement from Obama to deny de León oxygen.

This hasn’t propelled Feinstein above 50 percent overall, despite millions in spending. But a majority of Democrats and self-identified liberals support her in recent polling.

UNITED STATES - MAY 26: California Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Kevin de Le?n speaks during the opening of the SCV Democratic Headquarters for 2018 in Newhall, Calif., on Saturday, May 26, 2018. California is holding its primary election on June 5, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call) (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Kevin de Leon speaks during the opening of the SCV Democratic Headquarters for 2018 in Newhall, Calif., on May 26, 2018.

Photo: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

If de León makes the top two, he believes he can transform the race into a battle of ideas. He has a record to run on: During his tenure in the state Senate, California passed a $15 an hour minimum wage, a “sanctuary state” law, and numerous policies to combat climate change. The state Senate passed a single-payer bill last year, which stalled in the Assembly. De León has said his first action in the Senate would be to co-sponsor the “Medicare for All” bill introduced by Sanders.

De León rejects the adage that you succeed in Washington by mastering one issue. But he clearly perks up when talking about clean energy and climate change. “We have successfully created 500,000 jobs in the clean energy space in California,” de León said, noting that this is 10 times more than the total number of coal-mining jobs in America.

State mandates to generate half of all electricity from renewables and make every building in the state energy efficient require a small army of construction and technical workers. “Those jobs must be done physically on site,” de León said. “They can’t be exported to a right-to-work state. They can’t be off-shored to China. So that’s going to grow this economy right here.”

In addition to clean energy, de León hits a number of bread-and-butter issues in our discussion — child care, increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit, and criminal justice reform. But while this issue bucket and de León’s personal story fit well with the liberal, multicultural drift in California over the past couple of decades, even he acknowledges that he has yet to catch fire. “I say, listen, you don’t want to be supportive right now, but you don’t want to support her,” he said, “let me get into this runoff, let me come back to you, and we’ll take it from there.”

As he left Eng’s rally, a man in a purple SEIU T-shirt approached de León. “I’m Peace and Freedom,” he said, referring to the small leftist party that ran Roseanne Barr for president in 2012. “But I’m voting for you,”

De León smiled. “You hear that? We’re bringing together the left!”

Top photo: California state Senate President pro Tempore Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles, poses for photos in his campaign office on May 3, 2018.

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