By Laurel Rosenhall
One morning at the end of August, with the capstone of his political career in the balance, state Sen. Kevin de León retreated to his Capitol office and turned on the TV. On the screen, colleagues who had known the Los Angeles Democrat for years debated his landmark bill to eliminate fossil fuels from California’s electrical system. The bill was big, attracting national attention. But it wasn’t going to pass, at least not on this vote, and no smart politician sets himself up for a public loss.
So here he was, hunkered down in his half-emptied workspace, when talk of the bill’s merits morphed into a debate about de León himself. First, a Central Valley Democrat accused him of disrespecting rural Californians and pandering to progressive voters. Then, a San Diego Democrat stuck up for de Leon.
“You don’t have to like the author,” Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher pleaded as she asked for votes.
Upstairs in his office, de León didn’t flinch. The bill fell four ayes short of passing, but that temporary setback—it ultimately would become law—resonated less than Gonzalez Fletcher’s revealing admission.
Her acknowledgement encapsulated both the complexity of his legislative career and the factious nature of his campaign to unseat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Few politicians can match de León’s hard work and political instincts, yet few spend as much time dealing with people, even some political allies, who personally dislike them. The 51-year-old characterizes it as the price of success.
“I’m willing to fight for what I believe in,” de León said, “and willing to fight for what’s right.”
After 12 years in the Legislature, the first Latino in modern history to lead the state Senate is now forced out by term limits. De León leaves a stack of accomplishments: laws he wrote combat climate change, help workers save for retirement and protect undocumented immigrants.
But he’s also developed a reputation for power tripping and chasing the spotlight. And, though never accused of wrongdoing, de León has been near the center of the Capitol’s most serious ethical crises. He was a witness in the federal corruption case that sent one senator to prison, and was housemates with another who resigned this year under investigation for sexual harassment.
“He’s not everything he says he is,” said Dana Williamson, who worked closely with de León when she was a top aide to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Perhaps nothing de León has done is more polarizing than his challenge to Feinstein, a 26-year incumbent and Democratic legend. He is attacking her from the left, energizing progressives by framing himself as a more forceful resistance against President Trump.
Polls still show him behind her but gaining headed into the November election when, because of California’s nonpartisan election system, voters will choose between the two Democrats.
Many Democratic legislators have endorsed him. But two of the Capitol’s most powerful figures—Gov. Brown and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon—back Feinstein.
Gonzalez Fletcher, the supporter who jumped in to defend his energy bill, says de León “bears the weight of being a very active, very progressive, very out-there leader, and that causes some people discomfort.”
Splitting the party is, in some ways, familiar territory for de León. He’s been a disrupter from day one.
De León often tells the story of growing up with a single mother in the San Diego barrio. What he shares more reluctantly is that his mother and father were each married to other people when his mother became pregnant with him. His birth split the families that came before him, he said, and he lived alone with his mother for years before learning he had older sisters from her prior marriage.
“I struggle with that,” de León said. “You kind of feel like you just don’t have a foundation.”
His father was barely part of his life. De León and his mother, an immigrant from Guatemala, strained to get by on what she earned cleaning houses. They rented one room in someone else’s house and, throughout his early years, shared the same bed. When de León was a teenager, they rented two rooms in a basement, each one padlocked to keep out tenants living in the other rooms.
His mother died of cancer when de León was in his 20s. After dropping out of UC Santa Barbara, de León began a job preparing immigrants for citizenship. He had fallen in love with a fellow student and in 1994 they marched with their baby girl in a huge protest against Proposition 187, the ballot measure—later overturned by the courts—to slash services for undocumented immigrants.
The campaign felt like an attack on his family, and fired his ambition. He worked for the teachers union, graduated from college at age 36, and ran for office for the first time in 2006, defeating Christine Chavez—the granddaughter of labor icon Cesar Chavez—for a seat in the state Assembly.
Activism on behalf of immigrants has been a hallmark of his Capitol career as well. He authored the “sanctuary state” bill that was signed into law last year.
Yet Dolores Huerta—icon of the farmworker movement—supports Feinstein. She recalled de León approaching her at a labor council meeting earlier this year: “He came at me scolding me, saying ‘Why aren’t you supporting me?’ And I said, ‘Kevin, let me count the ways.’” Huerta called de León a “bully” and an “opportunist” for, in her view, dividing Democrats and disrespecting Feinstein.
But some Democrats, even some Feinstein supporters, praise de León for infusing the race with urgency, forcing the incumbent to prove herself to voters.
“Kevin had every right to run. I think he brings an important perspective to the race,” said state Sen. Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat.
Wiener endorsed Feinstein but said he thinks highly of de León, calling him a “substantive policy person” and “a gentleman.”
California collects billions of dollars through its cap-and-trade program that makes companies pay to emit greenhouse gases. Laws written by de León require that a chunk of the funds flow to disadvantaged neighborhoods, to pay for environmental enhancements like planting trees and installing rooftop solar panels.
“He’s got what I think is almost a unique ability to marry climate change concerns, which are normally the province of white coastal elites, to working class people,” said R. L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus.
But where Miller endorses him as an “inspiring, transformational candidate,” other Democratic activists say de León’s environmental record is inconsistent. They are angered by his 2013 vote against a bill to ban plastic bags, and how he helped block a bill that would have delayed a project to suck water from the Mojave Desert.
After the clean-electricity bill was defeated on the Assembly floor, one of de León’s aides handed him a list of the votes. He pulled out a blue pen and began circling names of lawmakers he believed he could convince to change their minds.
By the end of the night, the bill had passed and de León was slapping backs and shaking hands on the Assembly floor. At week’s end, after he’d cast his final votes as a state lawmaker, de León celebrated in a Capitol hallway, singing along triumphantly to a mariachi serenade.
You didn’t have to like him, as his allies might have said, to admire his hunger, his refusal to be discounted, his willingness to disrupt all sorts of notions about California and its future, if that’s what it takes to make a change.
This is an abridged version of the full story, which is available at CALmatters.org—a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.
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