With less than a month until midterm elections, Californians are getting ready to cast their votes for their state, county and district representatives. While polls indicate that California will remain a blue state, one race between Democrats is catching attention nationwide.
Incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein is facing off against the state senate’s president pro tempore Kevin de Leon. Feinstein has held her senate seat for almost 26 years, and holds the record for getting the most popular votes, 7.3 million, in U.S. Senate election history in 2012.
But for the first time decades, Feinstein is looking at a credible threat to her seat. De Leon, the progressive Democrat from Los Angeles, is making waves in many communities, even taking the endorsement of California’s Democratic Party earlier this year.
“Kevin de Leon has really been a champion for working people and the state legislature. He’s been a champion on climate issues [and] clean energy jobs,” Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation said. “[De Leon is] somebody who has gone above and beyond to support workers when they needed it most, and that’s the kind of leadership that we want to see in the United States Senate.”
The California Labor Federation, which is affiliated with 1,200 labor unions across the state, is endorsing de Leon because of his positive track record with issues important to workers. Smith explained the choice is not a referendum on Dianne Feinstein, and has more to do with Kevin de Leon’s character.
“Dianne Feinstein has certainly done a number of good things over her years in senate, and she’s pushing back against the Trump administration,” he said. “[But] we see a champion for working people in Kevin de Leon, and that’s something our members have responded to in a very big way.”
Other organizations that are supporting de Leon in this race agree that the decision is less about Dianne Feinstein. Gladys Limon, executive director of the California Environmental Justice Alliance, said it’s time to bring a fresh face that is more representative of the state’s population into office.
“Senator Feinstein has proven her tremendous dedication through her public service and representation of California for over 25 years, but this is a very different time from when she first was elected,” Limon said. “The space of California and the needs of our community have changed. So it’s time for the new and progressive and bold leadership that Kevin de Leon has proven himself to be.”
Despite losing some endorsements, Feinstein continues to lead in polls by double digits. While several community groups throughout LA and California are leaning toward de Leon because of his fresh ideas, diverse background, non-traditional route to politics and an aggressively liberal platform, he is not well-recognized by all across the state, public policy expert Karthick Ramakrishnan said.
“Feinstein has a lot more name recognition which matters especially for people who are not party activists. And so part of de Leon’s struggle is that many voters don’t even know who he is, let alone what he stands for,” Ramakrishnan said. “There’s also the power of incumbency. Feinstein has been a multiple-term senate incumbent. That brings with it a very strong advantage.”
Feinstein may also be leading over de Leon because many voters cannot clearly distinguish the difference in their liberal platforms, he said.
Smith said the difference between the two candidates for laborers is that Feinstein has been just an advocate for workers, immigrants and climate change policy, while de Leon has been a champion for them.
“[It] really came down to him prioritizing and going above and beyond when it comes to workers’ issues like wages, secure retirement, healthcare [and] climate change,” he said. “We’ve just been impressed with him during the time that he’s been in the legislature.”
Smith said de Leon’s Latino heritage is also attractive for voters because it is representative of the diversity of California’s population.
“Even more important, is what he will actually do to promote that diversity, to promote economic opportunity for people of color, for immigrants and for working class folks who have been shut out of the American dream,” he said.
Limon expressed a similar sentiment, noting California’s demographic shift over the years as a reason for de Leon’s edge over Feinstein.
“De Leon is a leader who leads with clarity, and is grounded on California values, and has a strong understanding of both the need of the underlying policies that are required for the diverse communities of California,” she said.
Ramakrishnan said the Latino population may be more split on the decision between Feinstein and de Leon, but that the Asian American people of LA and California are heavily tilted in Feinstein’s favor.
In fact, his Asian American and Pacific Islander data suggests this is likely because of Feinstein’s name recognition and incumbency.
One Indian American and 35-year resident of Los Angeles, Rangeash Gadasalli, said he would rather give de Leon a chance because Feinstein has been senator for too long.
“The thing is we don’t want Feinstein. We know her, she didn’t do much [for Indians],” Gadasalli said. “We want to try out the other candidate. Let us see where he can help us. He could have a different vision.”
Gadasalli added he would like to see his state senator fight for more qualified Indians to immigrate over to the U.S. to work at large companies. He said this would strengthen America’s bonds with other Democratic countries, as well as assimilate people with strong values into American society.
“When [immigrants] come here, they’re an asset to this country,” he said.
Ramakrishnan said while some Indian Americans share the same priorities as Gadasalli, they are in the minority.
“The top three issues tend to be economy, education and health care. That’s been the case for the last several years,” he said. “It’s not just about what affects people directly. Indian Americans care about American society just as a white person would or a black person would.”
Asian American voters tend to vote with the Democratic Party because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that has recently become linked to the Republican Party, Ramakrishnan said.
“You would think [Asian Americans would] be natural supporters of the Republican Party, but it turns out that they’re not. And why are they not? The simplest answer is anti-immigrant and racially-exclusionary rhetoric, and some would say policies too, on top of that,” he said.
Because of L.A.’ rich diversity, members of different cultural enclaves are looking for a state senator who will hear the voices of every type of person. African American resident Nitra Cooper said she wants whoever is elected to engage with these diverse constituents.
“I would like a lot more support. When [we have] questions and when there are changes that we’d like to be made, [we want our senators to] reply to everyone, not just some,” Cooper said. “That would be important to me — response.”
Cooper was one of nearly 50 African American residents to attend a voter information session put on by Black Women for Wellness on Oct. 12. The non-profit, non-partisan organization educated community members on the voting process and the propositions on this year’s ballot. Nourbese Flint, policy director at Black Women for Wellness, said African American voters are looking for someone who goes beyond the status quo and represents all Californians.
“It’s so important to have folks that are representing California and that they are in touch with people and their daily lives,” Flint said. “When you look at some of the things that have been happening on a federal level, it is important that our conversation, that the views of color, are being represented in our senator.”
While Feinstein has looked out for her diverse constituents on a number of occasions, she has also put out some bills that have hurt black Californians, she said.
“[We want] progressive leadership, someone that’s willing to push the envelope, not stay the rail. We want people who are shaking things up and I think that’s why I appreciate Senator Kamala Harris because she put a bill out looking at maternal mortality rates for black women,” Flint said. “And I think that having somebody there that we can continue those conversations with is really important.”
The increasingly progressive and liberal values of Californians are a result of what’s going on in national politics, Limon said.
“The Trump Administration continues its assault, very aggressive assault on working families, on immigrant communities and on our environment. We require strong and bold leadership to stand up against those rollbacks and to protect Californians,” she said. “If there was ever a time to be a champion for immigrant communities, for environmental protections, for environmental and climate justice, that time is now.”
Smith said it’s important for the state senators to protect immigrant families from ICE raids and anti-immigrant policies enacted by the current presidential administration.
“We’re the epicenter of resistance in California to the Trump agenda, and our leadership should reflect that. I think Dianne Feinstein on a number of fronts has been effective in countering Trump’s proposals, but again, we’re really focused on candidates up and down the ballot who are going to do everything in their power to protect those who Trump is targeting,” he said.
Based on polls and Ramakrishnan’s data, it seems Feinstein will remain comfortable in her seat. However, Limon said there is a clear movement toward more progressive and more liberal values among Democrats in blue states.
“As the federal government is in crisis, progressive, young leaders are stepping up from all over the country,” she said. “[They are] responding to this call for strong, progressive leadership by running for congressional and senatorial seats.”