Feinstein, De Leon Barely Spar in Only Debate for Senate Seat

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, right, and rival, current California state Sen. Kevin de Leon, sit down for the only debate ahead of the 2018 midterms. (Maria Dinzeo/CNS)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a small circular room crammed with TV cameras in downtown San Francisco Wednesday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein – who has not shared a debate stage with a political opponent in almost 20 years – faced off with her Democratic opponent, state Sen. Kevin de Leon.

De Leon, who hopes to win Feinstein’s seat in November, said California needs a new voice in Washington. He blasted Democratic lawmakers, and indirectly Feinstein, for a “lack of courage and backpedaling” over President Donald Trump’s policies.

“It’s time for a change,” de Leon said. “We need someone in Washington who reflects our values, who is willing to step up and speak out. The status quo is not working for everyday Californians.”

The highly anticipated “debate” was actually a conversation with the two candidates at the Public Policy Institute of California’s San Francisco headquarters, with institute president Mark Baldassarre asking the questions.

De Leon used Wednesday’s platform to paint himself as both an outsider and a seasoned political leader, the son of an immigrant single mother with a third-grade education who rose through the ranks of state government to the highest position in the state Senate. He touted his legislative prowess, mentioning several times that he led the effort to pass a climate change mandate requiring utilities to obtain 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2045, calling it “the most comprehensive climate change policy in history.”

Feinstein, who leads de Leon by 11 points according to the last poll by the Public Policy Institute, said she plans to focus her fifth term on growing California’s economy and making the Golden State  a more affordable place to live.

While de Leon promised to topple the status quo, Feinstein said the last two years haven’t been easy with a Republican-controlled Congress and White House, lamenting the power struggle in that currently has Democrats at a disadvantage. She said the only way Congress will be able to pass any kind of gun control legislation, or immigration and health care reform is if Democrats win enough seats to take back the Senate.

“When you have both houses and the White House controlled by one party it’s extraordinarily difficult. I call it a lock on power,” she said. “If you can break that lock down you break that dynamic, and that’s what I hope will happen on this election day. If we break that dynamic we will be able to pass very good legislation in the Senate. But you don’t have an opportunity because you don’t control. Sure, you can protest, but they move their majority regardless.”

On immigration, de Leon said he opposes the Trump administration and reminded the room about the passage of Senate Bill 54, the California Values Act, which established safe zones around schools, courts and hospitals and prevents cooperation with federal immigration authorities by state law enforcement.  But he didn’t really say what he’ll do about immigration if elected to the U.S. Senate.

Feinstein said the country can expect legislation on immigration reform, but only if the midterms go her party’s way. That might include a “blue card” guest worker program for farm laborers to work part-time in the U.S. It will definitely include a prohibition on separating children from their parents at the border, she said, a practice both she and de Leon described as abhorrent and inhumane.

“There is a real need for a major immigration bill, and I believe if Democrats control the U.S. Senate you will see one come out of the committee and be passed by the Senate,” she said, noting that immigration is one issue on which Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.

Early on in the conversation, both were asked about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whose contentious nomination was eventually confirmed by the Senate this month amid accusations of sexual assault by several women. The votes fell along party lines 49-51, with Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia the lone Democrat to vote in favor.

Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, did not vote for Kavanaugh, but has been criticized by de Leon for her “failure of leadership” in holding back a letter from Kavanaugh accuser Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who reached out to Feinstein about the assault that allegedly happened back in 1983 when Ford and Kavanaugh were in high school. Kavanaugh has vociferously denied the allegations.

On Wednesday, Feinstein stressed Ford’s request for confidentiality. “It said in three places ‘Please keep this confidential.’ I called her the next day and she very much wanted it confidential.”

Feinstein said a number of women have confided in her over the years about similar situations and she has always respected their privacy and desire to remain anonymous.

She said with control of Congress in Republican hands, there was little she could do except argue on the floor against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. “I think as long as appointments are made the way they are made, which is the president has the authority to make judicial appointments and it’s an advise-and-consent process, there’s very little advise when the parties are different in the executive and legislative branch. So it’s a difficult circumstance.”

De Leon refrained from attacking Feinstein directly, but said he will push for a system in Washington similar to one he introduced in the California Legislature for reporting and investigating claims of sexual harassment.

“There’s been no action in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

At the end of the hour the pair stood up and shook hands. Then, unexpectedly, de Leon leaned in and kissed Feinstein on the cheek. Some people applauded, others looked flummoxed. Feinstein laughed.

“Oh wow,” she exclaimed. “I didn’t know he was going to do that!”

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