Los Angeles Politics

Column: Feinstein needs to ask herself some questions

People who love their job can find it very difficult to retire. Work is their life and identity. That’s why Sen. Dianne Feinstein is hanging on.

I get it.

This is particularly true when it’s a position of power, perks and privilege. And there are few that can top a U.S. Senate seat.

But it’s now time for Feinstein to seriously consider letting go.

The 89-year-old senator, the longest serving in California history, needs to weigh the harm she may be causing Democrats by not being around to vote, especially on President Biden’s judicial nominations.

More importantly, Feinstein needs to ask herself whether she’s still capable of performing up to her own high standards.

And she’s the only one who can truthfully answer that — not the hovering political vultures. She and her top staff, which should be honest with both themselves and her.

Feinstein would probably be better off personally just walking away from all the sniping and growing pressure to get lost, dark drama that she doesn’t deserve. She’s arguably California’s most accomplished senator ever, and nothing can take that away from her.

Whether California would benefit by gaining a more robust, on-the-job, fulltime replacement we couldn’t know until a successor performed in the office for a while.

Feinstein announced in February what everyone expected: She won’t run for a sixth full term at age 91 next year. So there’s an all-out fight brewing to succeed her.

If Feinstein stepped down before her term expired, Gov. Gavin Newsom — by himself — would select another Democrat to serve out the rest of her tenure.

The best bet to be Newsom’s potential choice in that event is liberal U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, 76, of Oakland. That’s because two years ago Newsom committed himself to appointing a Black woman if a Senate vacancy opened.

Newsom’s commitment was unfortunate. I say that not because of Lee or anyone else he might choose, but because no governor should lock himself into an ironclad commitment covering a hypothetical future situation. He should leave himself some flexibility to deal with changing circumstances.

In 2021, Newsom was trying to appease Black women who were angry because he didn’t replace former Sen. Kamala Harris with another Black woman after she became vice president. Harris’ departure left the Senate without a single Black woman. But that’s not California’s fault. There are 49 other states that also elect senators.

Newsom appointed his longtime political ally, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, to be California’s first Latino senator. Padilla is doing a fine job.

Lee probably could do a fine job, too, depending on your ideology. She has 25 years’ experience in Congress and is one of three leading candidates running to replace the centrist Feinstein.

The two early Democratic frontrunners — in polling and fundraising — are U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, 62, of Burbank and Katie Porter, 49, of Irvine. Newsom hasn’t endorsed anyone.

If Lee were appointed by Newsom to fill the brief remainder of Feinstein’s term, she would receive a substantial campaign boost as a newly crowned senator. But it wouldn’t necessarily be enough by itself to beat Schiff or Porter.

None of these three candidates are among the vultures trying to peck away at Feinstein.

But Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont) — co-chair of Lee’s campaign — bluntly called on the senator to resign last week.

“We need to put the country ahead of personal loyalty,” Khanna tweeted. “It is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties. Not speaking out undermines our credibility as elected representatives of the people.”

Spare me that style of Trumpian credibility.

I’ve always hoped that Feinstein would be allowed to finish out her term gracefully in dignity, being accorded the respect she has earned.

Also, I’m not wild about a governor appointing a senator. That should be the voters’ decision.

But Feinstein’s situation has worsened and her absence from Washington while recuperating from shingles threatens the Democratic agenda in a Senate that her party controls by only a two-vote margin. And that’s with the help of three independents.

Moreover, newly elected Democratic Sen. John Fetterman, 53, of Pennsylvania, still recovering from a stroke last year, was hospitalized for six weeks for treatment of clinical depression. He probably needs to ask himself the same questions Feinstein should. Like Feinstein, if Fetterman resigned, a Democratic governor would choose his successor, thus preserving the party’s razor-thin Senate majority.

Feinstein’s more crucial problem is her widely reported diminishing cognitive ability with memory lapses.

But she was voting and helping to move Biden’s judgeship nominations out of the Senate Judiciary Committee until being hospitalized with the shingles attack in late February.

Since then, she has missed more than 60 Senate votes and judicial nominations have stalled. Without Feinstein, the committee is mired in a 10-10 partisan deadlock.

Last week, Feinstein asked Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer to temporarily replace her on the committee with another Democrat. But Republicans are expected to balk at that. And there’s no timetable for Feinstein’s return.

Feinstein said she’ll be back “as soon as possible once my medical team advises that it’s safe for me to travel. In the meantime I … will continue to work from home in San Francisco.”

OK, millions of Americans have been working at home since the pandemic. But they’re not members of an institution that calls itself the world’s greatest deliberative body. It meets and deliberates in person —not via Zoom. How much can she really get done at home?

Hopefully Feinstein will be able to return soon. If not, she needs to do some painful soul searching and perhaps heroically step aside.

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Joseph Hernandez

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