Southern California could reassert itself as the political epicenter of California after Senator Dianne Feinstein retires next year. The congressional candidates vying to succeed her, and the vacancies their campaigns have created, provide opportunities for officeholders who are younger, more liberal and more rooted in Southern California.
Younger, more liberal, more weighted to the south: California’s political demography is shifting, particularly as two of its political lions move off the stage. For generations, the Bay Area has punched above its weight in terms of influence, and California’s political position has grown up – and old – with it. That’s changing.
Just two years ago, all three plum California offices – the governorship and both Senate seats – were held by Bay Area Democrats (Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris). The governorship still remains in Bay Area hands, but Senator Alex Padilla, a veteran of Los Angeles politics, holds the Harris seat, and the race to replace Feinstein, who announced last month that she will not seek a seventh term, includes two formidable Southern California candidates.
The Senate race, in turn, has touched off jockeying to replace those who would replace Feinstein. In almost every instance, the congressional seats would be filled by new officeholders who are younger, more liberal or more oriented toward Southern California – sometimes in combination.
Gov. Gavin Newsom took over in 2019, maintaining San Francisco’s hold on the governor’s office, though replacing the iconoclastic Brown with a younger, more staunchly and predictably liberal Democrat.
With Feinstein preparing to wind down her historic career, the trend is set to continue.
Congressman Adam Schiff, the best-funded and best-known of Feinstein’s would-be successors, would shift power south. He was a federal prosecutor in the Los Angeles U.S. Attorney’s Office, and his congressional district cuts across Los Angeles, Glendale and Pasadena.
Some of the same would be true for Congresswoman Katie Porter, a more junior member of Congress who won her Orange County seat in 2018, part of a wave of Democratic victories born out of revulsion for then-President Donald Trump. Porter, known for her tough, populist questioning of congressional witnesses, would represent a more liberal senator than Feinstein, as well as a more southern one.
Both Schiff, 62, and Porter, 49, are downright youthful compared to Feinstein, who will be over 90 when she leaves office.
The third major contender for the Feinstein seat is Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Oakland but grew up in the San Fernando Valley. At 76, she’s hardly a youngster, though notably younger than Feinstein, and she is a standout liberal.
Dianne Feinstein remained firmly committed to working across the aisle, even as partisanship increased in the Senate. As voters start thinking about the political ideals of her successor, some argue that California will be best served by someone who can maintain that spirit.
California’s changing demographics and vast wealth gap have inspired liberal voters to push for a more progressive U.S. senator to succeed long-serving Democrat Dianne Feinstein in 2024.
To run for the Senate, those congressional members are giving up their House seats and, again, the likelihood is that they will be followed by officials as liberal as they are, and often younger (geography is less relevant for House seats, since they are geographically more compact). In Schiff’s case, for instance, a large field of candidates has emerged – he was first elected to the seat in 2001, so this is the first opportunity in more than 20 years to win it without getting by Schiff. They include moderate Democrat State Sen. Anthony Portantino and more progressive candidates such as Nick Melvoin, a member of the Los Angeles Unified School Board; former Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is endorsed by L.A. Mayor Karen Bass; and Assemblywoman Laura Friedman.
Lee is among Congress’ most liberal members. She was famously the only member of Congress to oppose the authorization to use military force after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, so it will be hard to find a successor to her left. But her Oakland congressional district is not about to elect a conservative or even a moderate. Going forward, the seat will almost certainly be held by a liberal who is younger than Lee.
Only in Porter’s case is a shift to the right a distinct possibility, and even there it is a longshot. Porter was the first Democrat ever to win her Orange County seat, and she has had to fight to keep it even as redistricting moved her from the 45th district to the 47th.
In 2020, she beat Republican Scott Baugh by about 9,000 votes. Baugh has announced plans to run again now that Porter is eyeing the Senate, though he will face stiff competition from state Sen. Dave Min, a progressive who has Porter’s endorsement and the advantage of running in a presidential year, which tends to boost turnout and help Democrats.
All of that gives the progressive and southern wings of the California Democratic Party plenty to cheer about.
Still, there is lament along with the excitement – nostalgia for a politics that sublimated partisanship beneath progress. That’s an idea that once defined California. Its master practitioner was Earl Warren, a progressive Republican who had roots in both south and north – born in Los Angeles, raised in Bakersfield, drawn first to politics in Alameda County – and who commanded California politics in the 1940s and early 1950s.
“Leadership, Not Politics,” was Warren’s campaign slogan and guiding principle across his three consecutive terms as governor.
The coming generation of California political leaders, already taking shape, will more closely resemble the electorate – younger, more liberal, more rooted in Southern California. It is likely to stand firmly with immigrants, demand better wages for workers and health care for all. These leaders will not tolerate symbolic border walls, corporate malfeasance or police abuse.
But the Warren legacy – carried on by Brown and Feinstein, each in their own way – of independence from party orthodoxy and leadership before politics, gave the state balanced budgets, gun control, wilderness and coastal protection and a powerful response to climate change, often by mastering the politics of the middle.
As veteran Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick noted, “they did big things.” Those ambitions may suffer as well.
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