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The Future of the Democratic Party May Be Forged by a California Senator. But Which One?

As they plot to retake power in Washington, should Democrats follow the lead of California’s decorous senior senator or its defiant freshman? How about both?


Every seat in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing room is occupied. The floor space is crammed with squatting, squirming photographers. Judge Neil Gorsuch sits alone at a table near the front of the room, silver-haired and square-shouldered, his resolutely smiling wife sitting behind him to one side. Opposite the judge, behind a polished wooden dais, sit 20 senators, backed by a gleaming white marble wall. By this, the third morning of Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, the jurist has dodged and weaved through nearly 12 hours of questioning. Abortion? Definitely a serious issue. The emoluments clause? Well, a case might come before the court, so he couldn’t possibly comment. “I care deeply about the law, and an independent judiciary, and following the rules of the law,” he says evenly. “And that’s the commitment I can make to you. I can’t promise you any more, and I can’t guarantee you any less.”

The performance is artful, in its way. But Senator Dianne Feinstein has had enough. “What worries me is you have been very much able to avoid any specificity like no one I have ever seen before. And maybe that’s a virtue. I don’t know,” she says sternly. “But for us on this side, knowing where you stand on major questions of the day is really important.” Gorsuch stares impassively.

At the very same moment, a half block to the north in the adjoining Dirksen Senate Office Building, a dreary meeting of the Homeland Security Committee is unfolding. Empty seats seem to outnumber occupied ones both in the audience and on the dais. The only TV camera is for the obligatory government feed. Then, an hour and 45 minutes into the proceedings, a shot of adrenaline is delivered from the last seat at the Democratic end of the horseshoe rostrum. 

Sisters-in-arms: Senators Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris confer before a closed-door meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on April 27. Though Harris likely has Feinstein and Virginia Democrat Mark Warner, rear, to thank for her placement on the committee, the senior senators may soon take a back seat to their freshman colleague as their party maps out its opposition to the Trump administration.

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

“The chief justice of the California Supreme Court put in a request to [Homeland Security] Secretary Kelly that ICE stop deportation agents from making apprehensions at state courthouses,” Senator Kamala Harris says, her tone sharp and deadly serious as she speaks to Chris Crane, the head of the union that represents immigration and customs officers. “In an agency you have described as being highly dysfunctional, how can I be sure that your agents know what to do?”

Crane, who had been describing ICE’s workforce under the Obama administration as demoralized and leaderless, and lavishly praising the Trump administration’s proposal to increase the ranks of agents from 5,000 to 15,000, blinks rapidly. “There are, from a memo on February 20, seven priority enforcement areas,” Harris says.

“I’m sorry, ma’am. What list are you looking at?” Crane says, shuffling through papers. “The Secretary Kelly memo? Um…”

“Are you familiar with it?”

“I am.”

“Are you familiar with the seven factors?”

“Um, I think that—can you tell me what page you’re on?”

“So tell me,” Harris says, her eyes narrowing, “what is your understanding about the instruction your members have received about the prioritization of this list?”

“Well, my understanding of these priorities is that they are, of course, priorities,” Crane replies, flailing. “Ma’am, we’ve got some great employees, some great officers—”

“That’s not my question. I’m not talking about looking into the hearts of the agents. I’m talking about, are they trained?”

Harris swiftly ends her questioning before Crane can regain his bearings. Crane exhales, and the Republican senators go about returning the hearing to its previous torpor. The conversation—the interrogation, really—had lasted barely 10 minutes. But electricity lingers in the air, as if a violent but thrilling thunderstorm had just passed over an open field.

They are,
in many ways, very different people. Dianne Goldman Berman Feinstein is 84 years old. She grew up in a Pacific Heights cul-de-sac, well-off during the depths of the Depression, the first of three daughters of a Jewish physician and an Orthodox Russian American mother; went to Stanford; and was on the verge of quitting politics when the assassination of Mayor George Moscone thrust her into the mayor’s office during probably the most tumultuous period in San Francisco history that didn’t involve an earthquake. She won her first U.S. Senate race in 1992 and will almost certainly run for a fifth term in 2018. Feinstein is a Democratic legend, the oldest current senator, and a consummate congressional insider, a master of cloture and quorum.

Kamala Devi Harris is 52 years old. She was born in Oakland and mostly raised in Berkeley by a single mom during the 1960s and ’70s, when those towns were the epicenters of political and racial turmoil. Harris’s parents—an Indian American breast cancer researcher and a Jamaican American economics professor—divorced when she was young. Harris has been hyped as a political star since her upset victory in the 2003 race for San Francisco district attorney. Two terms as state attorney general only heightened the expectations, and in November 2016, voters promoted Harris to Washington, where she replaced the retiring Barbara Boxer. The political press instantly anointed her a leading Democratic presidential candidate. And in the ensuing months, she’s made some subtle moves to exploit that chatter and keep her 2020 options open.

Yet for all their disparate bona fides, the senators find themselves confronting a common, disorienting problem: President Donald Trump. Feinstein was looking forward to spending 2017 burnishing her Senate legacy by shepherding the Supreme Court nomination of the first female president. Instead she finds herself under constant attack from the left for not loudly protesting Trump’s agenda. And Harris, who thought she could ease her way into the Senate, has had to walk a line between visibly pushing back against Trump and maintaining the low profile that’s still expected of a junior senator. 

The hearings on that March morning provided a distilled glimpse of how the pair are trying to navigate the Trump era: Feinstein, dismayed but regal, attempting to salvage some normalcy and bipartisanship, and Harris, prosecutorial but not pugnacious, willing to call the Trumpists to account in a visceral way.

The stylistic differences have been on even starker display since Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Feinstein, who got a heads-up phone call from the president, was noncommittal in her initial public reaction. Harris, by contrast, quickly took to Twitter to demand a special prosecutor. Both women sit on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so they played prime roles in the theater of Comey’s early-June testimony. Feinstein, elegant in pearls and seersucker, went after the key issues with gently framed questions that allowed Comey to stick in the knife. “Why do you believe you were fired?” she asked the former FBI director. “I take the president at his word, that I was fired because of the Russia investigation,” Comey replied. “Now, look, I could be wrong. Maybe he’s saying something that’s not true.”

Harris’s opening line was a more complex gesture, at once folksy and acerbic. “In my experience of prosecuting cases,” she said, “when a robber held a gun to somebody’s head and said, ‘I hope you will give me your wallet,’ the word hope was not the most operative word at that moment.” (She was, of course, referring to the president’s alleged statement to Comey, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go.”) After this bank-shot attempt, Harris used a series of rapid-fire questions to establish a damning possible fact pattern for Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose resignation she first demanded in March. 

These events mark the beginning of a new chapter in both California and national politics. How Feinstein and Harris decide to battle, together and separately, against President Trump will have major consequences for the future of the Democratic Party. Will the party stick with the sober Feinsteinian center left, or will it gamble on a direction that Harris and her younger, more combative comrades are urgently trying to define? Can Feinstein and Harris not simply play defense in D.C., but help the Dems find a spine and a soul? 

On election night
, 1992, the 28-year-old Kamala Harris was watching TV at home when she learned that Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer had become the first two women elected from the same state to the U.S. Senate. “‘The year of the woman,’” Harris says. “I got in my little Toyota and I drove across the Bay Bridge and I went to the Fairmont and I walked into that packed ballroom, and there were Dianne and Barbara, fists in the air. Year of the woman! It was extraordinary.”

Not that she thought she would grow up to replace one of them someday. “I was just a baby DA in Alameda County at the time,” Harris says with a laugh. But a whip-smart and ambitious one. A few years later she moved up to the San Francisco DA’s office; soon she was running the place, after narrowly knocking off incumbent DA Terence Hallinan in a brutal 2003 campaign.

Just four months after Harris took office, however, she and Feinstein were in the same room again, and the mood was starkly different from that night at the Fairmont. This time they were in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, mourning the death of Officer Isaac Espinoza, who had been shot with an assault rifle on a Bayview street. Three days after the killing, Harris, the rookie DA, had announced that she would not pursue the death penalty in the case, setting off a furor. Now she was sitting in a pew among the mourners as Feinstein stood at the altar. “This is not only the definition of tragedy,” the senator said. “It’s the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law.” The line drew a standing ovation inside the church, which was packed with cops. Outside, afterward, Feinstein turned the screw even tighter, telling reporters that she probably wouldn’t have endorsed Harris against Hallinan if she’d known the challenger opposed the death penalty.

“Feinstein tried to kneecap Kamala in the infancy of her career,” a Harris insider says. 

“Oh, that’s nonsense,” Feinstein tells me heatedly. “In the first place, there was no connection between us at the time. There just wasn’t. So how could I undercut her? I wasn’t thinking about that.”

Harris, for her part, dismisses the episode as ancient history. “Dianne and I have talked about it. And I think we agree that we disagreed on our relative perspectives on the issue,” she says, choosing her words very carefully. “I believe we both come to our opinions based on a lot of thought and hard work. And reasonable people differ.”

That past seemed to cast no shadow in January as Feinstein walked Harris down the aisle for her Senate swearing-in. The two women grinned and chatted every step of the way, with the veteran introducing the novice to her new colleagues. As they reached the well, Feinstein steered Harris toward Joe Biden, who performed some of his final duties as vice president by leading California’s incoming senator through her oath of office. Feinstein and Harris now had the same title, if not nearly the same stature, and as they stood there beaming, they looked completely at ease with each other and eager to get to work.

“I wouldn’t describe the intervening relationship as necessarily hot or cold, or close or not,” says Sean Clegg, Harris’s political consultant, talking about the past decade of dealings between Feinstein and his client. “The differences remain. But living in the era of Trump is clarifying, right?”

Yes. And maybe.

Though she’s
now seen by some on the left as moderate to a fault, Feinstein has been a progressive hero many times over during her 25 years in Washington. There was the 10-year ban on assault weapons that she crafted and then maneuvered to passage, by a slim four-vote margin, in 1994, during her second year in office. Then there was perhaps her bravest campaign: From 2009 to 2014, Feinstein relentlessly, and at significant political risk, fought with the CIA to win public disclosure of its role in torturing terrorism suspects.

One postscript to that battle was a vicious attack by right-wing congressman Mike Pompeo. “Senator Feinstein today has put American lives at risk,” the Kansan declared. “The sad conclusion left open is that her release of the report is the result of a narcissistic self-cleansing that is quintessentially at odds with her duty to the country.”

So it was astounding, two years later, when Feinstein voted in favor of Pompeo as Trump’s choice for director of the CIA. Forget the personal nastiness; Feinstein also seemed to have excused Pompeo’s enthusiasm for waterboarding. Not so, the senator claims. “Whether I voted for him or not, he was going to be the CIA director,” she says. So rather than grandstanding at Pompeo’s confirmation hearing, Feinstein pushed him, behind closed doors, to renounce the use of enhanced interrogation. “I didn’t initially trust what he said with respect to disowning torture. So I got it in writing, and I’m watching very carefully.... Time will tell.”

It’s the kind of thinking—pragmatic, reasonable—that infuriates Feinstein’s more liberal constituents, who don’t believe that this administration has any real interest in playing by conventional rules. But Feinstein rejects that stance. She tellingly describes a scene that has become a fixation for her. “There’s a house on Foxhall,” an avenue bisecting an exclusive neighborhood in D.C. “I go by it every day going home. And I look for this house. It’s a little house. It’s got an American flag. And across its porch, it’s got a big sign, hand-painted, saying, ‘Resist.’ OK. What actually does that mean? We have real problems in this government that we’ve got to solve. And people don’t understand that.”

At a town hall in San Francisco convened the day after our discussion, however, the crowd seems to have a fairly clear understanding of the word’s meaning. The emblematic audience question is delivered respectfully and imploringly. “What I’m asking is that, when there are things like ICE raids where fathers are pulled out of cars in front of their children’s schools, is that you speak loudly and declaratively, not just in your deliberative body, but in public as much as you possibly can,” an audience member named Aram Fischer says. “And you and Schumer and—”

Feinstein cuts him off. “Well, let me ask you, do you like tweeting?”

Her point seems to be that she doesn’t believe in Trump-style insults and posturing. But the crowd is stunned at her lecturing tone, and days later Fischer, a tech marketing executive and one of the leaders of Indivisible SF, an activist anti-Trump group, is still sorely disappointed. “It was super condescending. She was trying to box me in and make me some millennial who doesn’t understand how things work,” he says. “Her nature is to compromise, and compromise requires the other side making an offer that you can accept. And that’s not the time we live in.”

“On the other hand,” Fischer says, his mood brightening, “you’ve got this young, fresh senator who is happy to break some eggs along the way and make her points ferociously when necessary. I love it.”

“The Feinstein era
has been the period in which California went from liberal Republican to moderate to a progressive Democratic political environment,” says Eric Jaye, one of the state’s leading political consultants. “It also marks the time in which we went from a majority of white residents to a majority-minority 
state.” Harris, while no radical, has been “an embodiment of that change,” says her predecessor, Barbara Boxer. “The state is on the cutting edge of diversity, of progressive policy. I have told her to be herself, to establish her own identity, to not be afraid to step up.”

Harris’s Washington priorities were supposed to include legislation to create comprehensive immigration and criminal justice reform. But those plans were torn up on November 8. Her victory speech, rewritten as the night wore on and the TV screens at her L.A. party showed Trump rolling up Electoral College points, suddenly leaned heavily on the word fight. In the following months, she has maintained the feisty rhetoric on both the Senate floor and her Twitter feed. Yet Harris’s first few months in office have found her trying to strike a tricky balance. The cliché is that junior senators choose between becoming “workhorses,” who keep a low profile while diligently building a legislative record (think Hillary Clinton as a New York senator), or “show horses,” who seek out the limelight (see Illinois senator Barack Obama). “We don’t think those choices apply to the context we’re in,” a Harris adviser says. “She needs to be more of a warhorse.”

The new construct contains as much calculation as passion. For instance, when it became clear that the Women’s March on Washington would be a major event, Harris made a fairly late decision to deliver a speech at the rally. But her dealings with General John Kelly have been the purest expression of Harris’s combination of prosecutorial rigor and escalated indignation. As a member of the Senate’s Homeland Security Committee, Harris sharply questioned Kelly, Trump’s nominee to run the department, over his vague statements on deporting “Dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants. Disliking his answers, she recruited 11 fellow Dems to vote against Kelly’s confirmation—even as a much more senior Democrat on the committee, Dick Durbin of Illinois, pushed back.

Then, in late January, Trump’s travel ban stranded thousands of vetted Muslims in airports on a Saturday night. “I started getting phone calls from folks at LAX and Dulles and SFO, lawyers who were at the airport and who were being denied access to the immigrants and the refugees who were arriving,” Harris says. So she dialed Kelly’s private phone number. “He asked me why I was calling him at home,” she says, still incredulous at Kelly’s nonchalance. “I wanted to make sure he was instructing his folks on the ground that the court-ordered stays of the ban should be honored. No, I was not satisfied with his response, to be very frank.”

Harris’s impatience has also been apparent to her colleagues on the Senate Intelligence Committee, particularly when it comes to the slow pace of the investigation of possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. “She’s a quick learner, and she’s willing to press things,” says Senator Mark Warner of Virginia. “Kamala is not from the school of ‘you’ve got to wait your turn.’ She dove right into the issues, and that’s great. She’s on me, in a good way, to make sure we keep the Russian investigation moving.”

Though Warner is the highest-
ranking Democrat on the committee, even he acknowledges that it’s Feinstein who remains its wisest and most powerful Democrat. And it’s Feinstein’s influence that Harris will need to finesse if the party is going to realign its priorities. The question is, will the senior senator want to stick around for the seemingly inevitable tectonic shift? 

For Feinstein
, it would seem to be a fairly easy call. Though she turned 84 in June, she gives every appearance of being of sound mind and body; even pacemaker surgery, in January, became a demonstration of Feinstein’s toughness when she returned to work a mere two days later. Feinstein shows little interest in hobbies outside politics, or, more to the point, in giving up her hard-won Senate seniority. “Seniority is a valuable, tangible benefit to our state,” says Ellen Tauscher, the former California congresswoman and a close friend of Feinstein’s. “It’s not just, ‘Isn’t that nice, you’re going to sit closer to the center where the TV camera is.’”

Despite the left’s complaints about Feinstein, no serious challengers, Democrat or Republican, are emerging, though hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer is said to be doing preliminary polling. “He does not seem like a Tom Hayden or a Bernie Sanders figure, someone who the liberals would rally around,” a prominent California political strategist says. And Bill Carrick, who has steered every Feinstein campaign since 1989, assumes he’ll be making one more lap. “Go ride off into the sunset?” Carrick scoffs. “She is really into the job. There’s no doubt in my mind she runs again.”

Feinstein herself is more equivocal. “I don’t know,” she says. “The polarization is different now, and getting things right is harder than ever.” At times she sounds as if what she’d really love would be to go back to being mayor. “The economic disparity in San Francisco troubles me greatly. If I were still on the local level, I would do different things. I think the growth and the priceyness of San Francisco is really hard for people, and the congestion that’s resulting. I favor less high-rise construction downtown, always have. Of course, this is the city of my birth, and I grew up in it in a different way. It’s kind of hard to shake that. And then, as you get older,” she says, laughing, “the old days look pretty good.”

For all the respect Feinstein still commands, there’s a restive faction in California political circles that would like to see her bow out gracefully, leaving the battle to the sharper tongues and elbows of a new generation. The old guard in California politics “have not relinquished power at all,” a West Coast political operative says. “They are just hanging on—Jerry Brown, Feinstein, Nancy Pelosi. The state has these incredible up-and-
coming politicians who are actually what the future of America looks like—Alex Padilla and Xavier Becerra and Gavin Newsom. Kamala is the first one who has broken through.”

And Harris may be the first one to break through on a national level, too. She dutifully shrugs off questions about her interest in a presidential campaign, saying she’s focused on her new job. And she’s largely avoided the kind of publicity platforms that would signal a bid, turning down the national Sunday TV shows and magazines. At the same time, though, Harris is steadily keeping her name in the conversation. In March, she granted a podcast interview to David Axelrod, the man who made Barack Obama president. In mid-May, she was one of the featured attractions at the Center for American Progress’s Ideas Conference, which also showcased likely 2020 contenders Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand. “I think she’s done a great job so far,” says Neera Tanden, the former Hillary Clinton aide who runs CAP, a progressive think tank. “If she wants to be, Senator Harris can be a significant figure in the future of the party.”

And just what should the Democratic direction be in order to regain control of Congress and the White House? “I reject this conversation that is happening among a lot of Democrats, which is, ‘Oh, did we lose that white voter in Lansing or Scranton, that man who may have lost his job, and we need to go back and get him,’” Harris says, her pace revving up. “The trouble I have with that conversation is that there’s an inference: Let’s shift away from the Latina and the black mom. And that’s a mistake. One, we should not punish those two ladies for the box we put them in—when we walk into a black church and all we talk about is criminal justice or Black Lives Matter. When we walk into the Latino community center and all we talk about is immigration. Because guess what? When those two ladies and that man wake up at three in the morning, they have the same concerns and worries.”

It’s a unifying, economic-populist argument, the seeds of the kind of stump speech you could easily see Harris delivering in Iowa and New Hampshire and Florida and Arizona. She understands the emotional appeal that the Democrats need to make next time; it’s unclear just yet whether Harris has the skills to make that emotional connection on a retail level. Democratic strategists who have worked on presidential campaigns question whether Harris has the adaptability to weather the rough-and-tumble of a national contest, not to mention the fundraising network to generate the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary.

For her part, Feinstein doesn’t much dispute the core of Harris’s policy prescription for the Democrats. “I think we win when it’s about common economic issues,” she says. “We’re a big cross-section party. You’ve got virtually every race, every ethnicity, and not so many of the top 1 percent. The party looks a lot like California.” She does, however, express skepticism, at once politically realistic and maternally protective, about whether Harris is the one to make the case in 2020.

“My advice to her was, ‘Become a workhorse. Get it done. Write the bills that can get passed. Put together the coalitions that can do it. And be effective,’” Feinstein says. Her tone changes to something between wistful and bitter. “I think—well, I know it’s really hard for a woman to run for president. We had one who was predicted to win, who won the popular vote, who was first lady, who was secretary of state, who was eight years a United States senator—and she lost. Twice. So this is not an easy road.”

She’s right, of course. But as Dianne Feinstein uses her inside moves to tamp down Trump, and Kamala Harris raises her voice in protest of the president, California’s two senators are not just advancing alternative versions of the resistance. They may be paving a new path to the White House—one that is ever-so-slightly less treacherous, more plausible, and grown in California. 


Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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