October 19, 2018 at 7:14 am PST | by Karen Ocamb
Feinstein, de Leon converse in San Francisco

(Screen grab of PPCI conversation)

February was such a long time ago. Grassroots fever seized the California Democratic Convention, unexpectedly thwarting the perfunctory endorsement of senior Sen. Dianne Feinstein and puffing a headwind into the sails of her primary challenger, State Sen. Kevin de Leon. “Time’s up!” young de Leon supporters rudely yelled as one of the Democratic Party’s most revered elder stateswomen closed her speech. Both failed to win the CDP endorsement, which made national headlines, but de Leon later won the CDP’s executive board endorsement, another humiliation for Feinstein but with far fewer headlines.

Other than an unexplained emailed death threat from a Lancaster man who is now facing two felonies, Feinstein and her camp seem confident, though her steady 20 point lead has dwindled to 14 points—40 to de Leon’s 26 in an Oct. 16 poll by KABC/SurveyUSA. But, having contributed a multimillion-dollar loan to her campaign, Feinstein far outstrips de Leon in money. On Sept. 30, the end of the last fundraising quarter, Feinstein registered nearly $4.1 million, compared to de León’s $309,000 in the bank.

So it was a bit surprising that Feinstein— who was elected in 1992 and last debated an opponent in 2000—would deign to meet with de Leon, no matter how much he screamed about her ducking a debate. After all, given her lead and all the other news to report, who would notice?

Finally, a compromise of sorts was worked out. The two sat down for an hour of civilized “conversation” in San Francisco with Public Policy Institute of California’s chief executive and president, Mark Baldassare, who asked each candidate questions and prohibited cross-talk before an in-person audience of 100 and a web stream audience at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 17.

It was a watch-the-paint-dry exercise with Feinstein, 85, playing school marm to de Leon’s sound-bite-kid. “It’s time for a change,” he said, promising to be a “fresh” voice for California.

“We are engaged in a battle for America’s soul against a president without one,’’ said de Leon, 51. “It’s time that we stop biding our time and biting our tongue’’ while Trump “unravels…the California Dream.”

Though both agreed that immigration reform should be a top priority, de Leon touted his legislation making California a “sanctuary state” and spoke empathetically about young people brought to the country illegally as children by their parents. “I wish Democrats in Washington would fight like hell for Dreamers the way Donald J. Trump and Republicans fight like hell for his stupid wall,” de Leon said.

That left it to Feinstein to state the painfully obvious: de Leon presided over a Democratically controlled State Senate but the U.S. Senate is in the hands of conservative Republicans.

“You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything. What changes things are elections,” Feinstein said.

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