Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP
State Senate President Kevin de León, who has been at the forefront of Democratic efforts in Sacramento to counter the policies of President Trump, said Sunday that he will challenge Sen. Dianne Feinstein in next year’s election.
DeLeón made the announcement by posting an 82-second video online Sunday on his new U.S. Senate campaign website. In the video, de León talked about the hard work of his immigrant mother and his upbringing in a poor neighborhood.
“It doesn’t make a difference if it’s a Latino, African American, if it’s white, if it’s Asian American, if it’s a racially mixed community — poverty is poverty, and I think it’s incumbent on policy makers, on leaders, to provide real opportunity,” he said in the video.
De León’s announcement is likely to send shock waves through the Democratic Party nationally. The 84-year-old Feinstein has been in office since 1992, is the Senate’s ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and has never faced a serious electoral challenge from within her party.
But progressives have been frustrated with Feinstein, saying she has not been tough enough on President Trump in a state that is at the center of left-wing opposition to the president. She has voted to confirm half of his 22 cabinet-level and other top appointees, and said at a Commonwealth Club event in San Francisco last month that Trump “has the ability to learn and to change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope.”
De León, 50, has put himself at the center of the state’s anti-Trump opposition. The Los Angeles Democrat sponsored a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this month that restricts the ability of local and state law enforcement agencies to cooperate with federal authorities seeking to deport undocumented immigrants. He is also the author of a bill that would require California to chart a course for obtaining all its electric power from carbon-free sources by 2045, legislation that is on hold until next year.
Even though recent public polls show a softening of support for Feinstein, de León’ s challenge is steep. His opponent has near-universal name recognition, a place in history as California’s first female senator, a net worth of $79 million and the backing of the party establishment.
Soon after Feinstein announced for re-election last week, fellow Democrats including California’s other U.S. senator, Kamala Harris, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti endorsed her.
De León’s strategy will be to assemble a coalition that includes Latinos, African Americans and younger voters, and to advocate for issues close to the heart of supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. Those include the idea of a single-payer, Medicare-for-all health care system, which Feinstein does not back.
Winning the support of the Sanders wing could result in a flood of small-dollar donations from outside California and grassroots support from inside the state.
One influential progressive, Daily Kos online site founder Markos Moulitsas, was enthusiastic about de León’s candidacy.
“Kevin de León’ represents modern California—aggressively progressive, innovative, and in touch with this state’s growth demographics,” Moulitsas said. “Dianne Feinstein has had an amazing run, but the California she thinks she represents — one in which we’re supposed to give Donald Trump the chance to be a great president — no longer exists. “
But Feinstein’s top political adviser and longtime strategist, Bill Carrick, pointed out that de León supported former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
“And now, suddenly, he’s the head of the progressive movement?” Carrick said. “He’s an establishment politician, and now he’s masquerading as the leader of the progressive movement.”
De León was born in San Diego, the son of a maid who emigrated from Mexico. He didn’t graduate from college until he was 36, but rose quickly into the upper levels of state power as a grassroots community organizer. He was elected to the state Assembly in 2006 and to the state Senate in 2010, representing a district that includes downtown and east Los Angeles.
De León began the legislative session in December with an aggressive anti-Trump tone, saying California would lead the “resistance” to the president’s policies that target illegal immigration and government efforts to minimize climate change. That tone remained a steady force throughout the legislative session that wrapped up last month.
De León has focused his legislative career on the environment, immigration and public safety. He led the Senate this year through major policies requiring two-thirds approval in both houses, including on a gas tax and vehicle registration fee to pay for the state’s transportation needs, extending California’s cap-and-trade program to combat climate change and a new real-estate fee to pay for affordable housing.
He is loathed by gun-rights groups for the several measures he has authored and supported over the years to restrict access to certain firearms. His bill last year to require ammunition background checks overlapped with a ballot measure by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, pitting the pair at a time when de León was thought to be considering a run against Newsom for governor.
One question likely to arise is whether Democrats in the state Senate will want de León to step aside while he runs against Feinstein.
After the Legislature’s session ended last month, de León was asked how long he would remain Senate president pro tem. “I will be in this position as long as I want to be in this position,” he replied.
Other Democrats considering a run against Feinstein next year include billionaire San Francisco environmentalist Tom Steyer and Joseph Sanberg, a Los Angeles investor progressive activist.
“I am looking at the best way to take our government back from the political establishment and to stop Donald Trump,” Steyer said Sunday. “That includes a full consideration of running for the United States Senate.”
Joe Garofoli is The San Francisco Chronicle’s senior political writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @joegarofoli Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez