The Senior Tour

California’s rising political stars repeatedly bump up against a gray ceiling. When will aging icons like Dianne Feinstein and Nancy Pelosi step aside?

ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

The upper reaches of California politics have been an old folks’ home for the past couple of decades, frustrating the ambitions of younger politicians. But as Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, “Time and tide wait for no man,” and the clog in California’s political pipeline is beginning to clear, with this year’s elections potentially a major turning point.

Last year, 77-year-old U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer stepped down and 53-year-old Kamala Harris took her seat in the Senate and almost immediately was touted in political circles as a presidential possibility – a hint of the potential stakes in generational change in the nation’s most populous state.

Also last year, 85-year-old John Burton ceded the chairmanship of the state Democratic Party to a decades-younger labor leader, Eric Bauman.

Jerry Brown, who was just 36 when he won his first term as governor in 1974, will, at age 80, step down at the end of this year after his fourth term. His most likely successor is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who turned 50 in October and, due to the decades-long interconnections of the Brown and Newsom families, could fairly be seen as Brown’s political nephew.

Nancy Pelosi, the 78-year-old Democratic congressional leader, can hold her San Francisco seat for as long as she wishes, but not necessarily her leadership position. If Democrats somehow don’t do well in this year’s congressional elections, she’ll almost certainly be forced out.

Finally, there’s Dianne Feinstein, the 84-year-old other U.S. senator, who won her seat in 1992 after a stint as San Francisco’s mayor and a failed bid for governor in 1990.

There’s no doubt that Feinstein seriously considered retirement rather than seeking a fifth six-year term in 2018. In fact, she said as much, but finally declared, “I’m all in” for re-election, citing the need for effective opposition to President Donald Trump.

A major, perhaps decisive, factor in her decision was pressure from the Senate’s Democratic leaders, who feared that her retirement would trigger a very expensive free-for-all in California that would soak up tens of millions of dollars in campaign funds they have earmarked for critical Senate campaigns in other states.

It was assumed that if Feinstein announced for re-election, she would win in a cakewalk, even though her poll numbers had dropped a bit, largely due to a belief among some voters that it was time for her to retire. But one of those ambitious young politicians who’d been waiting for an opening wouldn’t step aside.

State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, who will be forced out of the legislature this year by term limits and has nowhere else to go, declared his Senate candidacy a week after Feinstein’s announcement.

“We are living in unique times facing unprecedented challenges that require new ideas and new energy,” de Leon said at his first public campaign event in Los Angeles, firing rhetorical bullets at what he described as Democratic capitulation to Trump.

The challenge reflects not only the 51-year-old de Leon’s impatience vis-a-vis a much-older rival, but also a widening division in the state’s Democratic Party that’s partially generational but also ideological — a revolt by left-wing Bernie Sanders adherents against a party establishment they view as too cozy with corporate interests and insufficiently militant in opposing Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress. In fact, Bauman almost lost the election for the state party chairmanship to a young Berniecrat — Kimberly Ellis, a Richmond political organizer. And in February, the state Democratic convention — heavy with Sanders supporters — refused to endorse Feinstein’s candidacy.

However, the party establishment is coalescing around Feinstein. She’s ringing up endorsements from a who’s who of Democratic politicians. Odds favor her winning another six-year term.

Brian Brokaw, a Democratic strategist, told the Sacramento Bee that “in reality, we live in a world of finite political resources. There are limits to voter attention and motivation, not to mention campaign contributions, volunteers and other precious commodities. So, while they have every right to run, it’s quite a stretch for Democratic challengers to say that taking on a party stalwart like Sen. Feinstein – and likely having to run a nasty, negative campaign against her – will be ‘good for the party.'”

Feinstein is not only the oldest current senator, but if reelected, she would be 91 when her next term ends in 2025. There’s a strong belief in Democratic Party circles that if she wins, she’d be likely to resign before the term ends. Were that to occur — or were she to die in office — the next governor would appoint someone to fill out her term. That could be a golden opportunity for one of those younger politicians.

Newsom is the most likely successor to Brown and thus most likely to appoint Feinstein’s successor. The guessing game about who he would choose already is under way.

Perhaps one of the reasons 46-year-old Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is defending Feinstein so fiercely is that he hopes to be in the mix to be her successor. But he isn’t the only younger politician who would yearn for her seat should it open up. Newsom could even tap himself if he thought the Senate would be a better pathway to the White House.

Or he might give his quasi-uncle, Jerry Brown, a chance to add the Senate to his resume, making up for his failed Senate bid in 1982, and thus freeze out the younger set for a few more years.

Feinstein’s next term would expire just as Newsom, if he becomes governor, would be midway through his second term and looking for another office. Brown could keep the Senate seat warm for Newsom, who’d be just 57 then — still young in political terms.

Keep reading: Handicapping the California Governor’s Race. 

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