Editorial: Feinstein needs to make her decision

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday January 18, 2023
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U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Photo: Rick Gerharter
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Photo: Rick Gerharter

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) needs to make her decision soon about retiring or running for reelection in 2024. At 89, Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor and supervisor, has served in the Senate since 1992 and is the state's senior senator. But reports over the last year of possible health issues have led to calls for her not to seek reelection next year, and already, at least one person — Congressmember Katie Porter (D-Irvine) — has formally announced a bid for Feinstein's seat. Others, such as Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), have signaled interest but are waiting for Feinstein to announce her intentions.

People may think that 2024 is a long way off, but they shouldn't forget that next year California's primary will be held in March because it's a presidential election year. (The state made that change in an effort to have more clout in the presidential nominating contests.) Therefore, in just over a year voters will head to the polls. It takes time and money to run a statewide race in California, and candidates need to start soon in order to run a competitive campaign.

Over the years, Feinstein has mostly been a reliable ally to the LGBTQ community. She was one of only 14 Democratic senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 — a courageous position at the time as many mainstream Democrats, including then-Delaware senator and now-President Joe Biden, voted for the anti-LGBTQ law. DOMA, which has had key sections declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court over the years, was finally repealed in full last month when Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act, which Feinstein strongly supported and co-sponsored. The Respect for Marriage Act requires federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide and also mandates that states must recognize such unions performed in other states. The new law is meant to thwart possible negative action by the U.S. Supreme Court that was revealed by Justice Clarence Thomas in his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that overturned the right to abortion. Thomas suggested that other precedents, including same-sex marriage, should be reconsidered. With the court's powerful 6-3 conservative supermajority, that is certainly in the realm of possibility.

On the flip side, Feinstein angered many LGBTQ people and straight allies when she dismissed then-San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to order city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in February 2004. Newsom, now the state's governor, was chided by Feinstein, who said at the time that the same-sex marriage issue "has been too much, too fast, too soon." Ultimately, however, Newsom was proved correct and his jump-starting the issue had a lot to do with marriage equality becoming legal nationwide in 2015 (and in California in 2013). By 2008, when Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban was on the ballot, Feinstein came out against it.

During her years as mayor of San Francisco, she also had a mixed record on LGBTQ issues. She hosted the same-sex union of a lesbian couple at her home, but in 1982 vetoed legislation by the Board of Supervisors that would have extended benefits to domestic partners of city employees, among other things. At the time, it would have been the first law of its kind in the country. San Francisco eventually passed a domestic partner law, in 1989, but by then Berkeley, West Hollywood, and Santa Cruz had already adopted similar ordinances.

Overall, in the Senate, Feinstein has been with the LGBTQ community, and it's critically important that her successor be of similar mind, which in deep blue California shouldn't be an issue. Feinstein has had a long and distinguished career in the Senate, but last year the San Francisco Chronicle and other outlets reported on health issues, specifically, that her memory is declining. In response, Feinstein stated that she's still performing her job well.

Far be it for us to demand that Feinstein retire at the end of her term. Porter's decision to enter the Senate race before Feinstein has announced her decision strikes us as a bit of a protocol breach, however, these days politicians jump into a race when they want. We hope that Feinstein takes the next few weeks to make her decision, so that other candidates can plan accordingly. At this stage of her career, Feinstein has a legacy as a powerful voice for Californians as the longest-serving U.S. senator from California, and one who has long supported the LGBTQ community despite a few hiccups. We hope that if she decides to announce that she will not run in 2024, the candidates running will show the same fortitude on issues affecting our community.

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