Feinstein, De León Present Sharp Contrasts at Democratic Convention

Supporters of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and state Sen. Kevin de León express their support at the Democratic State Party Convention. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

Before U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein could finish her speech at the California Democratic Party convention Saturday, the music began playing to indicate she had used her allotted time.

She kept talking. The music got louder. "I guess my time is up," Feinstein conceded as what sounded like a 1940s movie score continued playing.

Without missing a beat, supporters of her opponent, state Sen. Kevin de León, echoed her statement in a chant: "Your time is up! Your time is up!," a not so subtle reference to Feinstein's 25 years in the U.S. Senate.

Democratic Party activists have never really been Feinstein's people. In 1990, when she was running for governor, she came to the party convention and expressed her support for the death penalty, eliciting boos from the liberal crowd. She lost the party endorsement to her opponent John Van de Kamp but got the nomination anyway, ultimately losing the November election to Pete Wilson.

Feinstein has always been a little to the right of where the party's activists are. Now, at age 84 and in her final campaign, Feinstein is once again at odds with progressives, despite her efforts to move left by more strongly opposing President Trump's agenda.

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She said the appropriations committee she sits on would never approve $25 billion for Trump's wall along the Mexico border. But minutes later, de León's team sent texts noting that Feinstein had just voted for exactly that as part of the Common Sense Coalition spending plan that failed to get through the Senate.

The bill would have provided a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers, but it also included $25 billion for the wall. (California's other U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, voted against it.)

Feinstein also reminded the crowd of her long-standing leadership on gun control, including her success against long odds at getting an assault weapons ban signed into law in 1994.

In his speech to the convention, de León reminded the crowd that his opponent hasn't always been a reliable liberal. "Democrats, you’ll never have to guess where I stand," de León said, before noting he has championed issues such as raising the minimum wage, single-payer health care and the environment.

"Moral clarity is always doing the right thing when no one is watching," he said. "And it should never take a primary challenge to stand up for California values."

De León has had his own problems of late, most notably criticism of his slow response to the sexual harassment scandal in Sacramento.

Early Sunday morning, after all the ballots were counted, neither Feinstein nor de León reached the 60 percent threshold needed for a party endorsement. However de León was clearly the favorite of delegates. He received 54 percent of their votes to just 37 percent for Feinstein.

He'll need much more than that to overcome Feinstein's huge advantages in name recognition and campaign cash. A recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California had her leading de León by 46 to 17 percent.

Note: This story was updated to reflect the results of Saturday's endorsement vote.

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