October 16, 2017 at 4:10 pm PST | by Karen Ocamb
California reckoning: Kevin de León is challenging Dianne Feinstein’s Senate re-election

California State Sen. Kevin de León. (Photo courtesy Equality California)

Kevin de León, the progressive president pro-tem of the California State Senate, made it official on Sunday, Oct. 15—he’s challenging 25-year incumbent Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the June 5, 2018 Democratic primary. LGBT loyalties are about to be tested.

California Democrats are just starting to settle after the bruising battle by ‘Berniecrats’ over the election of out gay Eric Bauman as Chair of the California Democratic Party to succeed longtime Chair John Burton. For 17 years, Bauman worked as a powerful statewide strategist and organizer, electing Democrats to federal, state and local seats as chair of the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, representing over 2.4 million registered Democrats. Last week, on Oct 12, the LACDC elected Bauman’s pick— young gay politico Mark Gonzales—to lead them into the critical 2018 elections.

The CDP election denotes a longed-for political power shift from Northern to Southern California, which may give de León a good fighting chance against the rich, well-connected Feinstein. Though California has a population of 39.25 million, the state’s two US Senators have come from the San Francisco area since Republicans Pete Wilson and John Seymour, from the San Diego and Inland Empire areas, respectively, were elected in the early 1990s. And while, Los Angeles is essentially the ATM for the national Democratic Party, the last LA-based US Senator was actor George Murphy, a Republican elected in 1964.

De León, 50, announced his candidacy in an email to supporters and an online video six days after Feinstein, 84, announced she was running for a fifth full term. The contest is a dramatic playing out of the annoyed cry by younger congressional Democrats that it’s time for the torch to be passed to a new generation.

De León presents himself as a leader of that new activist generation. Having cut his political teeth fighting Wilson’s anti-immigrant Prop 187, he is the author of the once-unimaginable “sanctuary state” bill, recently signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. The legislation is seen by many as a powerful middle finger of resistance to the anti-immigrant policies of President Donald J. Trump.

“We now stand at the front lines of a historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a president without one,” de León wrote in an email to supporters. “Every day, his administration wages war on our people and our progress. He disregards our voices. Demonizes our diversity. Attacks our civil rights, our clean air, our health access and our public safety. We can lead the fight against his administration, but only if we jump into the arena together.”

Though he didn’t mention Feinstein in his announcement video that focuses on his biography and the need for jobs to escape poverty, De León is calling out the more conservative Democrat for suggesting that Americans should exhibit “patience” with Trump, that he might still become “good president.”

“He cannot be a good president, at all, whatsoever” de León told the Sacramento Bee. “His values are antithetical to the values of the state of California.”

Bill Carrick, Feinstein’s longtime campaign strategist, told The Bee that de León’s progressive positions are “counterfeit.”

“He’s making himself sound like he’s been a leader of the progressive movement in California and that he’s out front in a direct appeal to Bernie Sanders voters,” Carrick said. “But the truth of the matter is he never supported Bernie Sanders. I don’t see a record of somebody being out on the cutting edge on a lot of issues.”

Democracy for America disagrees. The progressive group with nearly 300,000 California members issued an immediate endorsement of de León, citing in particular his work on behalf of undocumented immigrants and single-payer healthcare.

De León “didn’t ask people to sit back and wait, hoping maybe Trump would someday turn out OK,” DFA Executive Director Charles Chamberlain said. “He immediately began working to pass policies that would help the people most immediately affected by Trump’s bigoted, greedy policies.”

The contest may prove to be a trial for LGBT voters. Feinstein was the San Francisco Supervisor who found the body of her colleague Harvey Milk and announced the assassination to the world. But as mayor, she also vetoed a domestic partnership bill that many LGBT voters remembered when she ran for governor against Pete Wilson in 1990. However, as a highly regarded conservative senator, Feinstein’s very strong voice opposing the anti-gay Prop 8 in 2008 was critical and deeply appreciated. She said she changed her mind about marriage equality because of her out deputy, Trevor Daley, who used to represent Feinstein at LGBT functions.  She has also fought on behalf of binational couples and to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.

On the other hand, de León is close with many LGBT activists and politicos, having fought for intersectional issues for a long time. He is an accessible and ubiquitous presence at LGBT events. He is of the new generation where the LGBT community is automatically included in his strategic thinking, not one on a list of constituencies.

Age, race, region, progressive-vs-conservative—all will play a part in the thinking of LGBT voters. But LGBT people also tend to be very loyal and that loyalty, earned for an emotional reason, may play an important role in who gets their vote next year.

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