Jewish Journal


September 28, 2000

Profile of a Centrist Democrat

A centrist Democrat, Feinstein's philosophy of governance seems closely allied to that of her colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman.


Dianne Feinstein is sticking to the center as she defends her Senate seat.     Richard Ellis/Newsmakers

Dianne Feinstein is sticking to the center as she defends her Senate seat. Richard Ellis/Newsmakers

Sen. Dianne Feinstein is an enlightened pragmatist, a politician anchored in reality, bent on getting things done with lucid assessments of problems and situations. She speaks with clarity, flexibility and openness, and radiates a sense of rationality and good will.

A centrist Democrat, Feinstein's philosophy of governance seems closely allied to that of her colleague, Sen. Joe Lieberman.

As a Jewish candidate, Feinstein reacted to Lieberman's candidacy with a great sense of optimism based on her own experience.

"There is a greater recognition today that we need people of all faiths, all races, and that all the faiths and all the races have good people. So to me that's the key. And I think the more that percolates throughout the society, the better society we're going to be," said Feinstein.

First elected to the Senate in 1992, her campaign for reelection against a challenge from Republican Tom Campbell is focusing on issues ranging from health care to gun safety to the environment. But what about her future beyond the next six years? In the past, her Jewishness and her gender would have been two issues to preclude a run for the presidency.

"I'm not ruling out anything," she said. "I am going to serve this next term in the Senate. I'm a native of California. I care very much about the state. After that, who knows?"

Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, Feinstein experienced a series of catastrophic events, vivid examples of ideological fanaticism turned into violence and madness. Black Muslims engaged in a spree of random murders and shootings of white people in 1973; the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped publishing heiress Patricia Hearst in 1974; the New World Liberation Front (NWLF), an underground terrorist group, began a campaign of intimidation and terror against Feinstein and other supervisors in 1975.

The NWLF placed Feinstein's name on a death warrant as "a dog to be put to death." Two of Feinstein's colleagues received candy boxes filled with dynamite at their homes. The campaign of terror came to a climax when Feinstein's 19-year-old daughter Katharine found a bomb planted in the window box of her room. Feinstein got a permit and learned to shoot at the police academy. She started packing a .38 caliber pistol in her purse.

Her moderation springs from experiences like the horrific shooting in November 1978 "when my predecessor, George Moscone, and colleague Harvey Milk were assassinated and the city was very polarized. I made a determination right then and there that I was going to run things from the center. I would consult as many people as I could on both sides but make my decisions based on what I felt was best for all of the people."

Despite immersion in her work, Feinstein tries hard to balance her political and personal lives. It's not easy; "Politics is not an easy life," she said. "It's a lot lonelier life than people realize."Feinstein is the first woman to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she is the ranking member on the Technology and Terrorism Subcommittee. Among her many notable achievements was the passage of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of 19 types of military-style assault weapons. She was also responsible for the Gun Free Schools Act, a "zero-tolerance" policy that requires all public schools to expel students who carry a gun to school, the California Desert Protection Act that protected more than 7 million acres of pristine California desert, and many other significant legislative acts.

Asked what was left for her to accomplish in the next six years, she said "One thing is certainly the patients' bill of rights. Another is the prescription drug plan. There are a number of specific bills I'm going to be focused on which come out of my work in the Judiciary Committee: identity theft, the gang abatement law and gun licensing."

Regarding criticism from some liberal Jews that the Democratic Party has lost its liberal roots, Feinstein responds, "One of the things that is happening is that America itself is changing. As we become a more diverse culture, I think we become, in a sense, less ideological. Some problems need conservative solutions and some problems take progressive solutions, and I feel that people are more and more seeing this. The more diverse the society becomes, governance, I think, is best carried out from the center of the political spectrum rather than from one end or the other."

Of the Anti-Defamation League's criticism of Lieberman for emphasizing his religiosity, Feinstein said, "He is a very moral, very respected, very religious person. And I think that's quite wonderful. I think in a way his morality, and what his religion means to him, will show through as he approaches various public issues. But my own view is that his going to synagogue, keeping a kosher home - that's really his business. And I think it should stay that way."

Feinstein went on to elaborate on her view of religion in American life. "I believe that it's a very personal and private thing," she said. "How one worships... I really believe is up to the individual. The way we're able to be the melting pot that we are is really by giving people that kind of space and seeing to it that the government does not impose any religious belief on its people. Because once you breach it, then you get into: Well, which God?"

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