'She represents the past': a Senate hug symbolizes California's Dianne Feinstein fatigue

Vivian Ho in San Francisco
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

It was a hug that would have shocked many, even in a year without social distancing: Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate judiciary committee, ending a contentious week of supreme court confirmation hearings with a full-body embrace of Lindsey Graham, the committee’s Republican chair.

The act and her remarks about the hearings for Judge Amy Coney Barrett – “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in” – sparked calls among progressives for her retirement, and outcry that she had been in office for too long. Many of the California senator’s constituents and her more progressive Democratic party colleagues have been arguing that for years.

“There have been a number of us in San Francisco that for a long time felt that, without taking away from what she has accomplished, it has gotten to a point where she is out of touch with where San Francisco is and where California is,” said David Campos, chair of the San Francisco Democratic party. He was not speaking on behalf of the organization.

Related: Top Senate Republican says he has the votes to confirm Amy Coney Barrett

“She represents the past of San Francisco and California,” Campos continued. “It’s not surprising that at a time when we’re facing a crisis, when we have a rightwing supremacist being rushed through the supreme court, she’s not up to the task. And it’s not because of her age. It’s just because of who she is.”

Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco in 1978, following the assassinations of the activist Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, and moved city politics firmly back to center. Although her legacy in the city is one of respect, given her lengthy history of public service, her penchant for civility and not rocking the boat feels out of place in today’s politics, her critics say.

In 2018, the California Democratic party voted to endorse Feinstein’s opponent in the state’s US Senate race, with the four-term incumbent – Feinstein has served in the Senate since 1992 – winning just 7% of the endorsement vote.

A recent push to rename public schools honoring historical figures with racist or colonialist legacies has included an elementary school named after her. The school names advisory committee noted that when Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco in 1986, she not only allowed a Confederate flag to fly in front of City Hall but pushed to prosecute the Black activist who removed it in protest.

And few have forgotten when a group of young climate activists engaged Feinstein in San Francisco and she told them: “You didn’t vote for me.”

Progressives now say Feinstein failed in her leadership role as the top Democrat on the judiciary committee, which this week interviewed Barrett, a staunch conservative.

“It’s not like Dianne Feinstein and I have a lot in common,” said the local lawmaker Hillary Ronen. “She’s a very moderate Democrat and I’m a very progressive Democrat. I expect us to disagree a lot of the time, but I feel like she betrayed a lot of us in that statement thanking Graham for his fairness. There was absolutely nothing fair. The handling of this democratic process has been a travesty and the least fair thing that we’ve seen.”

Ronen said she was “floored and crushed” to hear Feinstein’s remarks after the confirmation hearings.

“When people ask, ‘Why are you surprised? She’s basically a Republican.’ Well, I had never, in all the times I’ve seen her represent our state, expected her to betray us to this degree,” Ronen said. “I don’t know she fully realizes what that statement says to us as her constituents, who are about to see decades of civil rights gains go down the drain because of the sham proceeding orchestrated by the Republican party and Mitch McConnell.”

Feinstein speaks on the third day of Judge Amy Coney Barrett&#x002019;s Senate confirmation hearings.
Feinstein speaks on the third day of Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation hearings. Photograph: Erin Schaff/EPA

On Thursday, several national progressive groups called for Feinstein to step down as the top Democrat on the judiciary committee..

Brian Fallon, Demand Justice’s executive director, argued that Feinstein had “undercut Democrats’ position” during the hearings. Naral Pro-Choice America, a leading reproductive rights group, called Feinstein “wildly out of step with the American people”, saying the “committee needs new leadership”.

The Democratic California congresswoman Katie Porter also criticized Feinstein, telling HuffPost: “I disagree strongly with Senator Feinstein that that set of hearings was one of the best or was even acceptable. I think Amy Coney Barrett did not answer basic questions about her beliefs and stonewalled repeatedly. We got many fewer direct answers than we have out of most supreme court hearings.”

Sam Levin contributed to this report