San Diego Union-Tribune
July 4, 2001
Sen. Feinstein a battler for causes she deems right
Many turn to her for help on issues
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- It was perhaps 2 a.m. on a chilly morning last January
when the phone rang in Dianne Feinstein's Washington town house. The man
on the other end, California Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, was not in
the habit of calling the U.S. senator at home, much less at that hour, but he
badly needed a favor.
There was one Assembly Democrat holding up the late-night passage of a bill
to help resolve the state's energy crisis. Could Feinstein make a call to
persuade the legislator to get on board?
Feinstein obliged, and Hertzberg got his bill. The next day, the speaker
shipped a dozen roses to California's senior senator.
Now in her ninth year as one of the state's chief advocates in Congress,
Feinstein remains a lot like the woman who first entered politics more than
four decades ago as Gov. Pat Brown's appointee to the women's parole
board: When she believes the cause is right, she is a politician of tireless
In a world where news conferences and rhetoric make it easy for even the
lazy to appear productive, Feinstein has become known for her conscientious,
sometimes fastidious approach to lawmaking. She is exacting and intense --
some would say overprepared; thorough and meticulous -- some might say
"Feinstein's priority is to see some results, and that's tough in the legislative
arena," said Jim Seeley, a lobbyist for the city of Los Angeles. "You really
have to hang in there. You have to be a (deal) closer."
Feinstein's calendar is consumed these days with California's energy crisis.
She has tried to persuade President Bush to rein in electricity bills with tough
wholesale price caps. She is pushing for tax incentives for energy-efficient
buildings and for higher fuel-economy standards for federal vehicles.
Most agree she has been dynamic on the issue, even if that means being
awakened from a sound sleep to help fellow Democrats in California.
"I don't have a problem with that at all," Feinstein said of Hertzberg's call.
"That's what I'm here for."
Much of Feinstein's legislative agenda starts with the premise that California is
growing faster than its freeways, schools, housing, electricity and water
supplies can handle. Her latest plan -- to spend billions of federal dollars to
ensure enough water for the state's farms, cities and environmental needs -- is
signature Feinstein for two reasons: It is designed to address problems years
down the road, and she is pushing the plan with a Republican, Rep. Ken
Calvert of Riverside.
The 68-year-old Feinstein is well known for legislating alongside a
Republican, or with the flexibility necessary to get Republicans on board. She
worked with Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon to craft one of the
few bipartisan measures to address skyrocketing power bills.
That does not mean that all, or even most, congressional Republicans see
things the way Feinstein does.
Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista says Feinstein is probably more liberal than
Republicans would like, though he, like many who critique Feinstein's policies, calls her a stateswoman.
"I could come up with 25 things on which I think Senator Feinstein's vote was wrong, but she has the respect of her contemporaries on the Republican side," Issa said.
Perhaps because Feinstein was once San Francisco mayor, she is sensitive to
the concerns of California cities and counties. During Carmel's annual Bach
Festival, when foreign musicians encounter delays in their immigration
paperwork, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta phones
Feinstein for help.
"They will call me, and I immediately call Dianne," said Panetta, who lives in
the Carmel area. "She gives personal attention to these kinds of situations."
On immigration issues, advocates have found Feinstein stands a middle
ground. She voted to allow illegal immigrants to adjust their status without
leaving the country, and to increase the number of work visas given to highly
skilled foreigners. Yet in 1996, she also supported efforts to stop illegal
immigration and to put more restrictions on legal immigration.
"She has recognized that you need limits and rules and you need to enforce
those rules," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American
Despite having been mayor of what is viewed as one of the nation's more
liberal cities, Feinstein has a relatively moderate voting record. She helped
California businesses with corporate liability protections and with bills to help
high-tech companies. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1998 gave her a
61 percent rating -- a healthy score for a Democrat.
Some say Feinstein is not as moderate as she seems, but benefits by
comparison to California's other, more liberal senator.
"It's hard not to look reasonable when compared to Barbara Boxer," said
Tripp Baird, Senate liaison for the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Baird pointed to Feinstein's votes against tax cuts and certain defense
spending and for more government programs.
Her bipartisan ways are sometimes a tough sell inside the Beltway
"She is frustrated by the kind of increased partisanship that has occurred over
the last few years," Panetta said. "She comes from an era that believes the
importance of issues ought to prevail over politics."
Feinstein's careful, methodical style has helped her forge alliances and win
assignments that have paid off for California. On the Senate Appropriations
Committee, Feinstein directed money toward Los Angeles International
Airport and fought the Federal Emergency Management Agency's plan to
force California public buildings to carry earthquake insurance.
On the Senate Judiciary Committee, she recently helped the state win
important grants for law enforcement. This year, she landed a seat on the
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which put her out front on
the energy issue.
"For her to get on that committee, on top of Judiciary and Appropriations,
speaks well to her status," said one lobbyist.
Feinstein stays prepared by virtue of her own exacting staff and the people
she hires. There is a flip side to this work ethic and expectation: Feinstein was
once notorious for turnover in her Washington office -- losing 14 aides in less
than six months after she first joined the Senate.
Sources said she continues to be a tough taskmaster -- stern and
disapproving if things are not to her liking.
"She'll just push and push," said one lobbyist, who asked not to be named.
"She works (her staff) very hard."
Said another: "She insists (they) be prepared and prepare her. But she
demands no less from her staff than she does from herself."