Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein debated a general election opponent for the first time in nearly two decades on Wednesday night, with her challenger, California State Sen. Kevin de León, arguing forcefully that it was time for new leadership in Washington to spearhead the resistance against President Donald Trump.
"It's time that we stop biding our time and biting our tongue while this President unravels legislation crafted in California," De León said in his first and only face-to-face debate with Feinstein.
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"We cannot move California's progress forward if the status quo keeps resisting the resistance in the progress here in California," De León said. "I do believe it's time for a new approach. I do believe it's time for a new voice. It's time for a change."
But armed with legislative accomplishments that stretch over more than two decades, Feinstein parried back with examples of how she had used her seniority and knack for bipartisanship to produce results for California: from the assault weapons ban that she authored, to the water bill that she crafted with Republican Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to bring more water to farmers in the Central Valley.
The discussion was a genteel denouement in this David-versus-Goliath-style contest for Feinstein's Senate seat, which she has held since she won the special election to replace Republican Pete Wilson in 1992.
Though he edged Feinstein in votes when they competed for the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, De León has struggled to raise money and boost his name recognition in a race against one of the most powerful, and independently wealthy, Democrats in the state. Most polls have shown Feinstein with a wide lead three weeks before the election.
With so much policy agreement between them, the former state Senate Leader struggled to show how his leadership in Washington would lead to demonstrably different results. His central criticism of Feinstein has been stylistic, rather than policy-based, and he repeatedly returned to his mantra that the Golden State needs a senator who will be on the "front lines, not the sidelines."
But that was about as combative as it got during the Democrat-on-Democrat matchup on Wednesday in San Francisco that was billed as a "conversation" between the two candidates.
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Feinstein laughed when asked whether she was bothered by De León's frequent allusions to her age and her long tenure in Washington.
"I recognize that every candidate is fair game and I'm not a perfect person," she said. "If I could, you know, reinstitute myself in another form I might even consider it, but I am what I am."
"I think I have something to offer the people of California and I want to offer it. I want to work for them and I want to solve problems," she added. "I'm a pretty good problem solver. If you asked me what is my strength, I would say that's my strength -- solving problems -- and that's what legislation is supposed to do."
Over the course of an hour at the Public Policy Institute of California forum, De León pointed to California's leadership on progressive priorities like combating climate change, expanding health care to immigrants and his legislation making California a "sanctuary state," as areas where he believed more work could be done in Washington.
"We cannot let the naysayers in Washington say it cannot be done," he said.
But Feinstein gently rebuked him by noting that it is "extraordinarily difficult" to get legislation passed when Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, which she called a "lock on power."
"If you can break that lock open, and create a majority of the opposition party, which is the Democratic Party, in one of these houses, you break that dynamic and that's what I hope will happen on this election day," she said. "If we break that dynamic, we will be able to pass really good legislation in the Senate. I really, really, do believe that. You've got this situation where you don't really have an opportunity because you don't control the agenda (and) what's on it. Sure, you can protest, and we do it, but they move their majority regardless."
"You can march; you can filibuster; you can talk all night," Feinstein said. "It doesn't change anything. What changes things are elections."
De León noted his disagreement with those remarks after the debate.
"One thing I was shocked about is how she believes that organizing and marching in the streets do nothing, and have little value," De Leòn said, adding that he was an organizer before entering politics. "I can tell you from my perspective it has a huge impact on the influence of policies, on giving folks hope and inspiration that the next day will be better."
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