Why Dianne Feinstein Won’t Run for Governor


In 1987, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein set off a civic soap opera in San Francisco, performing a public Hamlet act in weighing whether to seek the congressional seat made vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. Sala Burton, widow of legendary Congressman Phil Burton. Feinstein chose not to run and the seat was captured by a wealthy Democratic Party activist who had never held public office: Nancy Pelosi.

Ten years later, Feinstein, by then a U.S. senator, fueled a statewide political drama, spending months agonizing over whether to run for governor in 1998, in a race won by Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. Among those who didn’t run, because his potential funding was frozen until Feinstein finally chose not to go: Leon Panetta.

And five years after that, in 2003, she set off yet another round of what-will-Dianne-do? speculation in political and media circles by mulling a gubernatorial bid in that year’s recall. Again she didn’t run, eventually campaigning to help Davis keep his office; he lost, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor.

Now once again, Feinstein is playing coy, teasing reporters and confounding potential 2010 rivals with frequent smiling hints that maybe she will, or maybe she won’t run for governor. “U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein is way out in front of her Democratic challengers should she decide to seek her party’s nomination,” reports the latest Field Poll. “Should Feinstein decide against running, the race becomes a much closer contest.”

As reporters who covered Feinstein over several decades as a mayor, statewide candidate (including her losing 1990 race for governor against Pete Wilson) and U.S. senator, we recognize the signs of her obsessive flirtation with the political spotlight, and offer three words you can take to the bank:

She won’t run.

Putting aside whatever psychological motives cause California’s senior senator to perform a dance of the seven veils anytime there’s a statewide opening, there are key reasons why the scenarios and swirls of speculation about a 2010 gubernatorial candidacy are a waste of time and breath:

Policy: As chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and of the Subcommittee on Interior and Environment of Appropriations, Feinstein is better positioned, not only to pursue her passion for national security and foreign policy, but also her concern over big environmental issues such as water policy.

At a time when whoever serves as governor resembles Gulliver staked out by Lilliputians, Feinstein in the twilight of her career is unlikely to abandon the rarefied air of the Hart building to deal with 120 legislative gnomes in Sacramento, who are unlikely to pay her the level of respect she expects as grande dame of California politics.

“She would have no ability to deal with these novices in a term-limited legislature where Assembly speakers cycle in and out every year and a half,” said Garry South, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s consultant in the governor’s race. “She doesn’t have the constitutional capability to deal with these legislators for 15 minutes.”

Politics: As a politician, Feinstein is risk-averse; as a campaigner she is often a cranky warrior, for whom the delights of having breakfast with local ministers at the Barstow Holiday Inn are well-eclipsed by the cozy bonhomie of Georgetown dinner parties. Feinstein despises primary fights and at least some Democrats positioning themselves for 2010 — Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. John Garamendi come to mind — are unlikely to step aside for her, guaranteeing an expensive and exhausting battle.

Her Senate votes on Iraq, the Supreme Court, the Patriot Act and more would open her to scathing attacks from the netroots left. And though she’d probably survive those, the top two Republican contenders, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner and former EBay Chief Executive Meg Whitman, both are wealthy, self-financed and prepared to savage her.

Feinstein still bears scars from her 1994 near-death experience in the Senate race against former U.S. Rep. Michael Huffington (back when Arianna was a conservative), so taking on deep-pockets billionaires is among her less favored scenarios. Fear of being smacked around by the unlimited millions of erstwhile candidate Al Checchi, her husband’s former business partner at Northwest Airlines, kept her out of the 1998 race.

“She’d be facing a tough primary and a brutal general election,” said non-aligned Democratic pollster Ben Tulchin. “She’d be up against a billionaire no matter who wins the Republican primary.”

Personal: At 75, Feinstein already is older than the Golden Gate Bridge, the other iconic image of her hometown. Being one of 100 members of America’s most exclusive club suits the elite world view and atmosphere she finds most comfortable.

Beyond that, the wealth accumulated in China and other overseas investments during her years in the Senate by her husband, University of California Regents Chairman Richard Blum, would be eye-specked by every opposition researcher and investigative reporter in California, if not the nation, with the specter of a financial scandal, substantive or insinuated, hanging over her campaign.

At a time when a Democrat is president and her party owns big majorities in both houses of Congress, Feinstein’s clout in Washington is greater than ever, and still growing. Look for her to take yet another pass on the governor’s race, sealing her reputation as the chief window shopper of California politics.

This article was published in the Los Angeles Times March 16, 2009

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There are 12 comments for this post

  1. avatar Anonymous says:

    Damn and double damn! As a Coloradan, I wish she would run for and get elected governor of California. I am tired of having your state share her with the rest of us in the U.S. Senate. Keep her at home, please!

  2. avatar Anonymous says:

    I would be much more inclined to consider your statements if it weren’t for the fact that they are so obviously biased and incredibly sarcastic.

    Jeff Lewis

  3. avatar Anonymous says:

    She was pretty explicit about not running when asked explicitly during a meeting last week with a contingent of LA electeds (including Villaraigosa) and business leaders. Seemed to leave no door open on window cracked.

  4. avatar OC Progressive says:

    Hilarious and spot-on.

  5. avatar Bill Bradley says:

    Hi, guys, very nice piece and new blog!

    Today was a jammed day but I’m going to get into it tomorrow when I do a “California 2010” featurelet.

  6. avatar Anonymous says:

    WELL, guys = “That’s one way to smoke out her real motives, eh?” TOUCHE!

  7. avatar Steven Glazer says:

    Thoughtful and incisive. Best of luck with your new blog.

  8. avatar SUSAN F. RASKY says:

    New Blog, good. Feinstein analysis, very good. Describing her as older than the Golden Gate bridge is, a cheap shot and, well, sexist. Notice that nobody compared 75 year old Willie Brown to depression era infrastructure.

  9. avatar Roberts and Trounstine says:

    Thanks Susan. But we’d have no problem comparing Willie to some crumbling public works project if people were speculating whether he’d be running for governor. Do you know something we don’t?

  10. avatar RGJ/Dallas112263 says:

    Though there is much water to run under many bridges before the identity of the next Governor is known and also in the full knowledge that my political prediction ‘batting average’ has been tracking the stock market, (I picked Al Gore in 2006 to win in 2008, dissed Senatorial Presidential candidates as unelectable and in a measure of my lack of faith in my fellow Americans I developed a nervous tick that didn’t go away until Obama was sworn in), I am still prepared to say that Diane won’t run and nobody else can lay a glove on the former Guv in the first round. I further predict a second round knock out no matter the name of the Republican… But for myself, it would be more satisfying to have Poizner demolish Whitman and/or Carly before running into a mature Jerry Brown, who is a very serious fellow…

    RG Johnson
    San Jose CA

  11. avatar Anonymous says:

    Blatant attempt to obtain a free, POST-PAID coveted CalBuzzer pin: WASN’T THE ABOVE POST just eclipsed by “The Washington Times” MUST READ revelation on DiFi hubby’s financial dealings and her failure to recuse herself from a vote related to those matters? hmmmmm?

  12. avatar campaignsthat says:

    Yes it is thoughtful i also think so.

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