Sunday, Oct. 15, 2017. Kevin de León quells rumors and officially comes out as a candidate for the US Senate this November. Headshaking ensues as seasoned politicos try to fathom challenging rich Democratic establishment icon Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It is disrespectful. It is divisive. Her seniority and years of deliberative, measured experience are needed now more than ever, they argue, to lead the charge against President Donald Trump and his chaotic administration.
But progressive California Democrats are clamoring for bold, new energetic leadership to vigorously push back against Trump’s cruel Tweet-policies on immigration, climate change, healthcare and full LGBT equality. To them, de León is a champion who stands in sharp contrast to the patrician Feinstein.
Born in Los Angeles of Guatemalan and Mexican descent, raised by a loving, hard-working single mother, de León, 51, got an education and rose to become the President Pro Tem of the California Senate, authoring and passing legislation and making history. It was his bill that Gov. Brown signed into law making California a “sanctuary state”—a law that was recently upheld by a federal appeals court.
“Dianne Feinstein is one of the most conservative senators in the Democratic caucus,” RoseAnn DeMoro, executive director of the progressive National Nurses United, told CNN. “And in the age of Trump, a state as progressive as California deserves the most progressive senators….It’s not her powerful position, and she is powerful, but we need someone who reflects today’s values as a leader. It’s not the age thing. It’s the political thing. I don’t think she’s in this for the long haul.”
Feinstein is 85 and the age thing might matter to younger voters. An AP-NORC/MTV poll released July 30 indicates that most Americans ages 15 to 34 are looking for young leaders and think the midterm elections will give them a say in how the government is run. Jolted by a real estate developer/Reality TV star becoming president, they realize that all that progress under Barack Obama could be nullified by a stroke of Trump’s magic marker.
Youthful enthusiasm exploded at the California Democratic Convention last February as giggling young delegates angled for a quick selfie with Feinstein—then yelled, waved tons of signs and voted for de León. Feinstein’s missteps still rankled—rudely telling her “time’s up,” as she closed her remarks onstage. They appeared unforgiving of her calling for “patience” around Trump’s novice presidency during an Aug. 29 appearance last year at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco.
“I don’t think children who breathe dirty air can afford patience,” de León told CNN. “The LGBT worker or woman losing their rights by the day or the black student who could be assaulted on the street, they can’t afford patience. ‘Dreamers’ who are unsure of their fate in this country can’t afford patience.”
“We don’t owe Trump patience. We owe Californians resistance,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
De León shocked the nation by winning 54% of the roughly 2,800 California Democratic Party activists at the convention, depriving Feinstein of the expected CDP endorsement. But Feinstein rebounded in the June primary, winning by 26 points. De León won the next round, however, securing 65% of 333 ballots cast by the party’s executive board. He now gets his name and photo on official CDP door hangers, slate mailers and email blasts, among other endorsement benefits.
“Earning the endorsement of so many leaders and activists of the California Democratic Party isn’t just an honor and a privilege; today’s vote is a clear-eyed rejection of politics as usual in Washington, D.C. Through years of hard-won progress, we have proven to the world that California can forge a path for the rest of the nation,” said de León.
Feinstein’s camp brushed it off, noting her strong win in the primary and a slew of polls that suggest she’s a shoe-in for re-election. But de León has been on the ground in the state for years, cultivating union and immigration organizers, gun control advocates, educators, environmentalists, and a slew of friends and leaders in the LGBT community.
“I’ve always been very close to the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual) community even before I even knew all the initials that keep growing,” de León says with a laugh during an extensive phone interview with the Los Angeles Blade. “It’s always been my core set of values that every human being deserves a real opportunity to succeed, regardless of who they love and regardless of the hue of their skin and regardless of their legal status. That is embedded in my DNA.”
De León learned to care about LGBT people as a child from his mother and aunt around the kitchen table.
“My mother got a third grade education and my aunt even less,” he says. “I was very young and they were talking about a gay friend, a colleague of theirs. I didn’t understand. Obviously, they didn’t understand themselves. But they spoke with such affection, such tenderness. And here were two immigrant women with limited formal education and the way they spoke so lovingly, tenderly, beautifully about their gay friend. I could deduce the person they were talking about was gay—they kind of spoke in code around me when I was just sitting there listening to them at the kitchen table. And it transcended ethnicity and legal status and poverty—that we’re all human beings and we deserve dignity and respect. That had an ‘Ah Ha’ impact.”
De León’s LGBT education continued as he picked his mother up from her work as a housekeeper at convalescent homes. “She had quite a few gay colleagues with her and I just remember they were just so beautifully nice with my mother and my mother with them and that had a huge impression on me of the universal values of treating everybody with dignity and with respect. So when there is a discriminatory blow against anyone in the LGBTQIA community, I feel that blow equally.”
Today, de León feels Trump administration’s harmful reversal of LGBT progress.
“I feel that blow because what this president has done since day one is to use the power of the White House to defile this nation and pit one group against another and to reopen old wounds,” he says. “Clearly, we still have a long way to go for full and equal rights, not just legally but in society’s perceptions of our LGBTQIA community.
“But it is very clear that this president, in a very calculated way, is continuing to evoke these feelings of homophobia in our country— just exactly the way he has done with the anti-immigrant fervor that he has reawakened,” de León says. “He’s doing the same thing in our LGBTQIA community by eliminating any mention of LGBTQIA policies and programs that were in the previous administration from the White House website.
“That is a complete revisionism of our history,” he continues. “No matter how difficult our history has been, to completely eliminate one’s presence, one’s pain, one’s fight for equality manifested through policies that improve the human condition for all individuals—it’s very clear that this is a war, this is a war to fan the flames of homophobic sentiment throughout the country.”
De León notes that homophobia crosses party lines. “I moved [Assembly Resolution 15, the Uniting American Families Act] condemning the policies out of Washington, D.C.. This is pre-Trump. Men and women, particularly from south of the border, who were fleeing their home states because they were being persecuted and were victims of extreme violence, or had to witness their loved ones, their friends, their partners murdered in cold blood because of who they loved or because their identification or preference—and the federal government was grotesquely guilty in not facilitating the application asylum process for these men and women who were seeking asylum.”
De León chalked it up to ignorance, insensitivity. “But this president has taken it now to a higher level,” he says. “In our history books, in high school, in college, we read about Executive Order 9066, the Internment of Japanese Americans. We read about the Chinese Exclusion Act. We read about Stonewall. We read about Jim Crow laws. We read about Operation Wetback. These are things that we read about in our history books. We never would have thought that we would be witnessing it, in real time in 2018, by an American government perpetuating these awful, gross human rights violations.”
De León wants to take that awareness to the US Senate. “From day one when this president was elected,” he says, “I made it clear as leader of the Senate of the largest state in the nation, that I would help lead the resistance. But not lead from patience in the hope that this president could be a good president in the near future, as the senior senator from California has articulated publicly. But to do everything within my power to protect our economic prosperity, our progressive values and our people.”
Trump is a “clear and present danger to Californians and to the nation—but especially our home state because by a margin of two to one, we reject the politics fueled by resentment, fueled by homophobia, fueled by bigotry, fueled by misogyny,” he says. “And that’s why the LGBTQIA community will have a voice on the front lines…someone who’s proactive.”
Current polls favoring Feinstein are not discouraging. “We’re generating a lot of excitement among young people and LGBTQIA members and Latinos and African Americans and others who have been disenfranchised and marginalized in our great state,” says Kevin de León. “So we’re excited.”