By Judy Campbell
Senator Dianne Feinstein has held her seat for 20 years, and this fall, she’s running for another six-year term. Feinstein’s got a huge lead in the polls, and she’s a Democrat in a largely Democratic state. But there is a Republican hopeful vying for her seat.
It’s dusk in Anaheim, and Elizabeth Emken is at a gala charity event for injured veterans. She’s talking politics, but the conversation also turns to her autistic son Alex. It’s his condition that got her involved in politics.
Emken launched the lobbying arm of the national organization Autism Speaks and helped pass bills that improved insurance coverage for autism. As a candidate for Senate, she supports a small government and low taxes, Arctic drilling and repealing Obamacare.
She doesn’t apologize for her lack of experience in elected office. “We have got to get back to sending people to Washington who understand what families are going through. My husband and I have a mortgage. I’ve got three kids in school. We work for a living.”Emken says for all of Feinstein’s seniority, she hasn’t done enough for California — and she contends Feinstein’s refusal to debate shows that she’s not accountable. “When you have leaders who are so entrenched, who are so arrogant and feel so entitled to their seat that they’re unwilling to even debate a challenger, it really feeds into the cynicism I think we have right now,” she says.
Senator Feinstein disagrees. “Clearly I’m not out of touch with California, and clearly I’m not afraid to debate.” Senator Feinstein says she’s debated opponents in the past but won’t go head to head with Emken. “Here we have a young person who has no positive thoughts, it’s all just attack,” says Feinstein. “‘Oh, she’s out of it,’ using, I think, all kinds of spurious things,” says the senator.
Feinstein likely doesn’t see the need to debate. Republicans chose not to put up a well-funded or well-known candidate, and she enjoys a 17-point lead in the polls. She argues that re-electing her is a vote for ending gridlock. “What I hope is to go back with a strong vote and end this polarizing partisanship which has so characterized the senate as of late,” says Feinstein.
Forging alliances with the other side may be a relic of an earlier Senate, when the partisan divide wasn’t quite as wide.
Feinstein holds powerful appointments on the Appropriations and Judiciary committees. As chair of the Intelligence committee, she’s become a leader on national security issues. Whalen says she’s a person you go to to get things done — less likely to make an impassioned speech than to put riders in bills to benefit the state.
“There are show horses and there are plow horses, and not to disparage Dianne Feinstein, but she has, on more than one occasion, been a plow horse for California, and that’s a good thing,” he says.
Early in her Senate career Feinstein pushed through two landmark bills — the California Desert Protection Act that preserved 7 million acres and the federal assault weapons ban. That ban expired in 2004, and Feinstein says she’s made reinstating it a priority at a time when few politicians are pushing for gun restrictions.
But Feinstein has angered many on the left. She voted for the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. And environmentalists say she’s helped Central Valley farmers get more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at the expense of collapsing fish populations. Adam Keats, with the Center for Biological Diversity, says Feinstein has used her clout to reward her powerful supporters. “What that means is more water for large corporate agribusiness companies,” says Keats, “and less water and less concern, less interest — for the environment, and for fish, fisherman and for all the rest of the economy in a state that depend[s] on a healthy environment.”
For recent achievements, Feinstein touts a bipartisan effort with Sen. Olympia Snowe of Maine requiring that new cars average 54 miles a gallon by 2025. It’s the kind of across-the-aisle effort that Feinstein takes pride in. But Sen. Snowe is leaving office, the kind of moderate Republican that is fast becoming an endangered species. Harold Meyerson, editor of The American Prospect magazine, says forging alliances with the other side may be a relic of an earlier Senate, when the partisan divide wasn’t quite as wide. “Working across the aisle requires more than simply a Democrat’s intention. It requires a Republican willingness, and that simply isn’t there. So if that’s Feinstein’s calling card and in the past, to a certain degree, it has been, it isn’t really now,” he says.
So what would Dianne Feinstein’s role be in the new Senate? That’s a question her opponent Elizabeth Emken wants voters to ask. Emken has called Feinstein’s career ‘illustrious,’ but accuses her of getting nothing done in the past six years and says the state needs new energy.
The 49-year-old may be hinting at Feinstein’s age. She’s 79, and at the end of the term she’d be 85. Feinstein says she can go the course with anyone. “My health is good, my mind is strong. I’ve got a streak of stubbornness,” she says. “I don’t quit once I start. I see no reason why this next term should be any different.”
And any senator heading back to Washington will need all the energy and fortitude she can muster for what likely will be another contentious, deeply divided term.