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