She’s “losing her ironclad grip.”
State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León titled a December fundraising email with the phrase. He outlined key messages in his campaign against California’s senior U.S. senator, Dianne Feinstein, and said she isn’t being tough enough on President Donald Trump.
“Just a few months ago, the pundits said that Senator Feinstein’s grip on her Senate seat was unbreakable – that an insurgent campaign couldn’t work. Well, a new poll released recently shows just how wrong they were,” de León said in the email, referencing a Dec. 21 survey indicating in a one-on-one race, 41 percent of likely voters would support Feinstein, while 27 percent indicated they’d back de León.
De León, 51, is positioning himself as a hero of the left, touting legislative accomplishments on immigration, the environment and health care.
But the Los Angeles Democrat is facing a momentous challenge of his own in his first statewide campaign: No sooner had he announced he’d challenge one of California’s first two female U.S. senators than the Harvey Weinstein scandal unleashed a torrent of of sexual harassment allegations that engulfed the California Legislature.
Women in the Capitol community – including female lawmakers – have exposed deep-seated problems with sexual harassment. Misconduct allegations have led to the resignations of two state lawmakers. State Sen. Tony Mendoza, with whom de León shared a Sacramento apartment until he learned about Mendoza’s alleged behavior, is under investigation after The Bee reported that the Artesia Democrat invited a young woman seeking permanent employment in his office to his home to review résumés.
Female leaders behind Sacramento’s “We Said Enough” campaign say the male-dominated power structure in California’s Capitol perpetuates “pervasive” abuses, including sexual harassment, whistleblower retaliation and “dehumanizing behavior by men with power in our workplaces,” according to an October open letter signed by more than 147 women.
On Wednesday, De León spent his first legislative floor session of 2018 steering his caucus through a decision about whether Mendoza should step down. He ultimately agreed to do so temporarily with pay.
The developments give Feinstein plenty of political fodder, should she need to use it.
“He hasn’t been elected statewide, and therefore most Californians don’t know who he is,” said Garry South, a Democratic political strategist. “Whenever you’re part of legislative leadership, and there are problems or scandals in the Legislature, some of that is going to stick to you. To what extent depends on whether Feinstein and her operatives and her surrogates want to drive it at him.”
California has re-elected Feinstein to the Senate five times since she and former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer were elected in 1992. It was a pivotal election, known as “The Year of the Woman,” after Anita Hill made national news by accusing U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings.
Though she has faced intense backlash within her own party for expressing the need for patience with Trump, Feinstein could again benefit from being a powerful woman in a time of deep social change.
“What we saw in 1992, after the Anita Hill hearings, was more and more women saying ‘We’re going to vote for women because they’re a way of changing the power structure,’ ” said Mike Madrid, a Republican campaign strategist. “We saw a record number of women running ... and women donors – especially Democratic women – were more motivated to force structural change. There’s no question we’re seeing, as a result of the #MeToo effort and the Weinstein effect, female candidates doing much better.”
In an interview, Boxer predicted another “Year of the Woman” in 2018.
“I think this is a moment,” she said. “I think Dianne will win because she has a great record, and she deserves to win. She represents the progress that women have made.”
A moderate Democrat at age 84, Feinstein says her experience and ability to get things done are essential in today’s Washington. She holds powerful posts in Congress, serving as ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee that is investigating Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. She is also on committees overseeing military intelligence and government spending. She has worked on such issues as workplace harassment, domestic violence and equal pay for women throughout her career.
Feinstein said late last year she believes the latest public reckoning over sexual harassment in the workplace will have a profound effect on electoral politics. Like Boxer, she too has predicted a surge of women winning state and national races.
“We have an opportunity to really turn this next year into a year of change affecting women,” Feinstein said at a state Democratic Women’s Caucus meeting in November. “The first thing, because it’s on the map big-time now, is harassment.”
In Congress, Feinstein joined a bipartisan group of senators in December to introduce legislation overhauling the reporting process for victims alleging sexual misconduct, called the Congressional Harassment Reform Act. Among other things, it would require members of Congress found liable for sexual harassment to pay settlements out of their own pockets, remove a secrecy clause allowing victims to speak openly, and seek to improve the overall workplace environment in Congress for reporting sexual harassment and discrimination.
“We’re finally experiencing a cultural shift in this country, to a place where sexual abuse and harassment will no longer be tolerated, and Congress needs to lead by example,” Feinstein said in a statement about the proposed legislation. “For starters, that means requiring training to prevent harassment and discrimination, ensuring that no one is silenced or retaliated against, and creating accountability regarding settlements.
“Every person, regardless of where they work, should feel safe,” Feinstein added. “Our bill will enact important and necessary reforms as part of a much larger movement.”
It’s unclear how much Feinstein will push the issue in defending her seat in Congress. Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime campaign consultant, suggested he’s waiting for the outcome of the Legislature’s investigations before making any decisions.
“I haven’t been talking about this,” Carrick said. “The issue itself is a cultural sea-change, but I don’t know what’s true and what’s not true ... They’re going to have an investigation, and we’ll find out the results.”
In the interview, Boxer also weighed in on the allegations in the Legislature.
“I think Kevin (de León) has a huge challenge on his hands,” she added. “He ought to make the most of it and really clean house.”
De León held a press conference in December, announcing what he called “unprecedented” actions to address sexual harassment in the Capitol.
He publicly asked Mendoza to resign. He announced the Senate had hired two independent law firms to investigate complaints. He has insisted he didn’t know about allegations against Mendoza until his office was contacted by The Bee.
“We’re going to have the most far-reaching, progressive overhaul when it comes to sexual harassment in the country,” de León said at the press conference. “It’s my hope, when this is done ... that this will be a model for many legislative bodies – in fact, even the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Senate.”
Still, some said he could have done more.
“He should have done the right thing 11 weeks ago,” said Christine Pelosi, a signatory of the “We Said Enough” letter and chairwoman of the California Democratic Party Women’s Caucus. “How can California be a sanctuary state for immigrants, but not when it comes to women being sexually harassed at the Capitol?”
Dan Schnur, a professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center on Communication, Leadership & Policy, said the handling of the allegations poses political risks. But de León could overcome them, he said.
“The scandals in the Capitol create a challenge in that he has to demonstrate that he’s not part of that status quo,” Schnur said. “The more aggressively and loudly he argues for change, the more likely he is to put those concerns to rest. But it’s not as stark a contrast as he had against a longtime incumbent when he first announced.”