Politicians of the past: Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi navigate through the era of Trump

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Trailblazers in the Golden State.

Power forces in Washington.

Like Ted Kennedy was to Massachusetts, Tom Harkin to Iowa and John Dingell to Michigan, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, will go down in modern political history as icons of California.

But unlike most politicians of the past, Feinstein’s and Pelosi’s journeys to the upper echelons of legislative government ushered in an era where new norms about leadership, influence and power were forged in real time — by women and for women. Without a doubt, both members of Congress have had significant influence over the United States’ political agenda since the end of the 20th century.

Feinstein was elected as the first female mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and, alongside Barbara Boxer, became one of the first female senators from California during 1992’s “Year of the Woman.” Feinstein’s 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban and her later efforts to pass bipartisan gun control legislation are central to her legacy. Her “bombshell” 2014 CIA Torture Report and current position as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee have allowed Feinstein to exert substantial power over legal and intelligence-related matters, including the ongoing Russia investigation. Pragmatism and level-headedness have become the “Feinstein brand” both at home and in Washington.

Pelosi, too, has served California constituents for decades. As San Francisco’s congresswoman since 1987, she eventually became the first female Speaker of the House, where she presided over one of the most productive periods of modern Democratic politics. As one of the biggest supporters of the Affordable Care Act, or ACA, her tireless behind-the-scenes efforts were critical to the ACA’s passage. Throughout her career, Pelosi has been a staunch advocate for women through her commitment to closing the gender wage gap and enacting paid family leave — her catchphrase is “when women succeed, America succeeds”. In addition, Pelosi has helped pass massive energy and regulatory reforms. Regardless of political ideology, many regard her as one of the most technically skilled legislators and political operators of our time.

One might expect Feinstein’s and Pelosi’s leadership and expertise to be highly attractive to Democrats across the country looking to rebuild the party after its crushing defeat in 2016.

But times have changed in America.

With the 2018 election looming just above the horizon, California voters face tough electoral decisions moving forward. The era of President Donald Trump, marked by uncertainty and tumult both across the nation and in Berkeley, functions in stark contrast to the traditions and precedents that have dominated previous political landscapes.

But unlike most politicians of the past, Feinstein’s and Pelosi’s journeys to the upper echelons of legislative government ushered in an era where new norms about leadership, influence and power were forged in real time — by women and for women.

Are Feinstein and Pelosi well-equipped to handle this new age of the unknown? Or is it time for a new generation of political leaders to step in and forge a future that isn’t so grounded in the past?

Bay Area Roots

Pelosi’s history with the Bay Area goes back to 1969, the year that she and her husband moved to San Francisco. After serving as chair of the Northern California Democratic Party in 1977, she worked her way up through party ranks before joining the House in 1987.

Feinstein’s history with the region, however, is more complex.

Jim Hubbell, a Bay Area resident since 1964, remembers when Feinstein first emerged on the national stage after San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by former supervisor Dan White in 1978.

“(The murders) were shocking,” Hubbell said as he glanced down and shook his head. “It was a time of a lot of disturbance.”

As president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein was next in line to replace Moscone as mayor.

Hubbell did not know much about Feinstein at the time other than that “she was Jewish, a high achiever and pretty strait-laced.”

Feinstein would go on to run for mayor and serve two elected terms, or eight years, in the position. During her tenure, she improved city services, balanced the budget and reduced crime rates.

Politics Then and Now

While Hubbell sees Feinstein as an astute and qualified leader, he does not feel that her priorities align with the needs of Bay Area constituents today. Feinstein, he says, is more conservative now than she was earlier in her career.

“I’ve always wondered about the politics of how she’s been able to remain in office for so long with (California) going more and more to the left,” Hubbell said.

If given the opportunity, Hubbell would vote for a more progressive, younger candidate in 2018.

Are Feinstein and Pelosi well-equipped to handle this new age of the unknown? Or is it time for a new generation of political leaders to step in and forge a future that isn’t so grounded in the past?

As it turns out, Hubbell is not alone in his assessment. According to a September 2017 poll released by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, or IGS, most voters generally do not want Feinstein to run for a fifth six-year term, despite her similar job approval rating to the freshman U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California.

In particular, the poll states that among voters below age 30, only 30 percent support Feinstein’s re-election. The poll also found that more than half of Californian Democrats do not want Pelosi to serve as Democratic leader again in the future.

“The political climate is rapidly changing,” said Sadushi De Silva, a campus sophomore. “(Pelosi and Feinstein), while once influential women, are no longer the leaders the Democrats need.”

Younger, more progressive voters are itching for change, yearning to step away from the old rules of the game and dated players of the past.

Political customs and tradition are equated with establishment politics. As Hillary Clinton regrettably came to realize, a strong resume and experience aren’t a ticket to guaranteed success anymore. Pragmatism and compromise are viewed as underwhelming signs of weakness — or, as critics like to say, qualities of a “sell-out.” While these labels are not necessarily accurate, people of both parties believe in them fervidly. As a result, bipartisan cooperation becomes difficult for elected officials to justify.

Given Feinstein’s cautious, center-left brand of politics and Pelosi’s deeply rooted ties with the Democratic party establishment and fundraising machine, such trends create dissonance.

According to campus professor of political science Eric Schickler, however, if Feinstein and Pelosi decide to run for office again, they will likely still win.

“Politicians who have been around for a long time often see numbers around the 50 percent mark,” Schickler said, referring to the IGS poll that stated that less than half of California voters support re-electing Feinstein.

This number “doesn’t actually mean that people are going to vote against (her),” he pointed out. “It’s unlikely that she would get a really strong challenger, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Recently, progressive billionaire Tom Steyer has expressed potential interest in Feinstein’s seat, along with current California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Rep. Adam Schiff, D-California. Some fringe candidates, such as campus professor of molecular and cell biology  Michael Eisen, have already committed to the race.

According to campus professor of political science Eric Schickler, however, if Feinstein and Pelosi decide to run for office again, they will likely still win.

As for Pelosi, her role in House leadership remains contested.

“It is true that Democrats have a leadership problem, especially in the House, in that there aren’t a lot of young, rising star, exciting leaders in the party,” Schickler said. “But on the other hand, for a lot of the things Democrats care about, (Pelosi) has been effective. When Obama was President and she was Speaker, she fought hard for a lot of his agenda and achieved a lot. In the minority, her job is to fight the Republicans and she does that.”

According to Schickler, Pelosi has become a popular target for Republican opposition because she is from the Bay Area, a woman and an outspoken liberal Democrat. While this focus on Pelosi hurts Democrats in some ways, he said that regardless of who leads the Democratic Party in the future, critics will always find a someone to attack.

I agree.

That’s politics.

Necessary Changes

Perhaps for Feinstein and Pelosi, the best way to tackle the shifting political climate is to approach the Democratic Party and its expanding liberal bloc with open ears rather than skepticism. If progressive coalitions within California and the rest of the party are going to feel supported and respected by their representatives, leaders must adjust to demands of the modern activist era.

To start, Feinstein should make herself more accessible. It’s no secret that Feinstein and Pelosi are of the San Francisco elite. As some of the richest members of Congress — with an estimated combined net worth of over $80 million — they have resided in several of the wealthiest neighborhoods in San Francisco, in stark contrast to many constituents. While it would be unfair to assume that Feinstein’s and Pelosi’s comfortable lifestyles affect the quality of their representation, it is important for both leaders to get a feel for the political atmosphere in California. Constituent letters and office phone calls, while important, simply do not provide enough context to accurately assess the policies voters seek.

To Pelosi’s credit, she does host many public events, ranging from an August 2017 celebration of Women’s Equality Day at the Embarcadero to a DACA press conference two weeks ago. These events, while not always pleasant, give people a chance to interact with Pelosi and express their raw views and passion. During the Women’s March in January 2017, I was impressed to run into Pelosi marching alongside tens of thousands of women in the pouring rain down Market Street.

Feinstein, on the other hand, is largely removed. After thousands of angry constituents created an Oakland Facebook event, dubbed the “Empty Chair Town Hall,” intended to encourage Feinstein to host more public forums, she finally agreed to a town hall in April 2017. But that has been the only town hall held since January, with Feinstein’s last public appearance in California being a Commonwealth Club event with a ticket price of more than $40 and moderator-filtered questions.

While I understand that Feinstein’s job is time-consuming, it is wrong for her to remain so distant from California constituents. If she remains in office, Feinstein needs to better balance her personal belief system with the needs of voters. While voters should not expect her to change her core ideology, Feinstein should rethink her commitment to agribusiness, her defense of the intelligence community and her position on single-payer health care, an issue deeply important to progressive voters in California. Pelosi, who has also expressed skepticism on single-payer health care, should do the same. Even more pressing, both politicians should continue to resist the Trump agenda with strength and persistence. I should note that, while Feinstein was criticized in the media for her recent request that voters remain patient with Donald Trump, she has been very clear and vocal about her opposition to his policies.

Perhaps for Feinstein and Pelosi, the best way to tackle the shifting political climate is to approach the Democratic Party and its expanding liberal bloc with open ears rather than skepticism.

Finally, when considering Pelosi’s leadership moving forward, she and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, should rethink their Democratic messaging strategy. While Pelosi has been a valuable fundraiser for the party, her efforts to sell the Democratic National Committee’s new — and terribly ineffective— slogan, “A Better Deal,” fall flat. Until Democrats can figure out a cohesive economic message that isn’t just about opposing Trump’s policies, the Democratic party will remain fragmented and broken. And as long as the party continues to struggle and Democrats continue to lose winnable seats, the burden falls on Pelosi’s shoulders.

Understanding One’s Limits

With career politicians like Feinstein and Pelosi filling government ranks, their control over the American political landscape is undeniable. In many ways, this is a good thing — we need professional, serious political veterans who respect their jobs, manage complicated policy issues and know how to navigate touchy political negotiations with finesse and experience.

But restraint is a virtue. As George Washington recognized more than 230 years ago when he left office after only two terms, having the humility to concede power is of paramount importance in leaders.

Over the past few years, legendary legislators of the left — former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California; former Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California; former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada; former U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, and more — have all retired after decades of public service. Each was once viewed as an irreplaceable member of their Democratic circles, but their departures left room for new leaders such as Harris, Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California, and Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nevada, to step up to the plate and make a difference.

Ultimately, regardless of what Feinstein and Pelosi choose to do and however voters react in the polls, there is no doubt that both Bay Area women have accomplished remarkable feats throughout their careers. They should be incredibly proud of the contributions they’ve made to the country and to the state of California. They serve as role models for aspiring female politicos like me.

That said, voters should seriously question whether Feinstein and Pelosi are the right fit for this particular moment in history. Will they help heal the wounds of our divided nation, or is it time to, as former President John F. Kennedy would say, “pass the torch” to a new generation of Americans?

Contact Danielle Miller at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dmillercal.

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  • Auntie Pha

    Glad the piece mentions that while Americans got poorer, they got richer.

  • PeacePromoter

    Re: “Pelosi has been a staunch advocate for women through her commitment to closing the gender wage gap”

    When campaigning for the presidency in 1991, Bill Clinton said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his first State of the Union address, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his second State of the Union address, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his third State of the Union address, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth State of the Union address, he said women deserve equal pay. Each time, the Democrats stood up and applauded.

    When campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In Jan. 2009, Obama signed the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, saying women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his ’10 SOTU, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his ’11 SOTU, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his ’12 SOTU, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his ’13 SOTU, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up and applauded.

    In his ’14 SOTU, he said women deserve equal pay. The Democrats stood up, applauded, and CHEERED.

    When will just one Democrat bravely refuse to stand up and applaud because for all the talk, and all the laws for 76 years have done absolutely nothing to close the gender wage gap?

    In fact, not one of the following measures has achieved anything substanial over the last century:

    -The national War Labor Board mandated during World War I that if women must undertake work normally done by men, they should earn equal pay for that work
    -President Einsenhower’s equal-pay urging in his 1956 State of the Union Address
    -The 1963 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act
    -Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act
    -The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act
    -Affirmative action (which has benefited mostly white women, the group most vocal about the wage gap – tinyurl.com/74cooen)
    -The 1991 amendments to Title VII
    -The 1991 Glass Ceiling Commission created by the Civil Rights Act
    -The 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act
    -The Age Discrimination in Employment Act
    -The Americans with Disability Act (Title I)
    -Workplace diversity
    -The countless state and local laws and regulations
    -The thousands of company mentors for women
    -The horde of overseers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
    -TV’s and movies’ last three decades of casting women as thoroughly integrated into the world of work (even in the macho world of spying, James Bond’s boss is a woman)
    -The National Labor Relations Act
    -The Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009, after he campaigned repeatedly on a promise to close the gender wage gap, but failed even though the Democrats controlled the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives

    These measures have failed because women’s pay-equity advocates, who always insist one more law is needed, continue to overlook the effects of female AND male behavior:

    Despite the 40-year-old demand for women’s equal pay, millions of wives still choose to have no pay at all. In fact, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of “The Secrets of Happily Married Women,” stay-at-home wives, including the childless who represent an estimated 10 percent, constitute a growing niche. “In the past few years,” he says in a CNN report at tinyurl.com/6reowj, “many women who are well educated and trained for career tracks have decided instead to stay at home.” (“Census Bureau data show that 5.6 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2005, about 1.2 million more than did so a decade earlier….” at tinyurl.com/qqkaka. If indeed a higher percentage of women is staying at home, perhaps it’s because feminists and the media have told women for years that female workers are paid less than men in the same jobs — so why bother working if they’re going to be penalized and humiliated for being a woman.)

    As full-time mothers or homemakers, stay-at-home wives earn zero. How can they afford to do this while in many cases living in luxury? Answer: Because they’re supported by their husband, an “employer” who pays them to stay at home. (Far more wives are supported by a spouse than are husbands.)

    The implication of this is probably obvious to most 12-year-olds but seems incomprehensible to, or is wrongly dismissed as irrelevant by, feminists and the liberal media: If millions of wives are able to accept NO wages, millions of other wives, whose husbands’ incomes vary, are more often able than husbands to:

    -accept low wages
    -refuse overtime and promotions
    -choose jobs based on interest first, wages second — the reverse of what men tend to do (The most popular job for American women as of 2010 is still secretary/administrative assistant, which has been a top ten job for women for the last 50 years. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/11/gender-wage-gap_n_3424084.html)
    -take more unpaid days off
    -avoid uncomfortable wage-bargaining (tinyurl.com/3a5nlay)
    -work fewer hours than their male counterparts, or work less than full-time instead of full-time (as in the above example regarding physicians)

    Any one of these job choices lowers women’s median pay relative to men’s. And when a wife makes one of the choices, her husband often must take up the slack, thereby increasing HIS pay.

    Women who make these choices are generally able to do so because they are supported — or, if unmarried, anticipate being supported — by a husband who feels pressured to earn more than if he’d chosen never to marry. (Married men earn more than single men, but even many men who shun marriage, unlike their female counterparts, feel their self worth is tied to their net worth.) This is how MEN help create the wage gap: as a group they tend more than women to pass up jobs that interest them for ones that pay well.

    More in “Does the Ledbetter Act Help Women?” at http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2011/12/03/will-the-ledbetter-fair-pay-act-help-women/

    “Salary Secrecy — Discrimination Against Women?” http://malemattersusa.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/salary-secrecy-discrimination-against-women/