Feinstein Faces a Double-Team

Feinstein Faces a Double-Team – both of Dianne Feinstein’s political opponents attack her support for the Colombian military aid plan

John Nichols

Outside a San Francisco drug treatment center on a breezy late spring day, Medea Benjamin, the California Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, attacked incumbent Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, for backing a $1.7 billion military aid package to fund the Colombian government.

The U.S. government should not be pouring billions into the bottomless pit of misguided foreign drug wars, Benjamin said. It should be addressing the economic and social pathologies that create the demand for drugs on the streets of American cities. “Instead of a drug war in Colombia, we need to be funding drug rehabilitation in San Francisco,” she explained, making the connection between the global and the local that underpins this year’s most high-profile third party Senate campaign.

At her side was a boyish Stanford Law School professor who echoed Benjamin’s arguments, adding that he feared growing U.S. involvement in Colombia could lead the United States into a Vietnam-style quagmire. Sending U.S. tax dollars to Colombia will do nothing to prevent drug abuse in America because the demand for drugs will remain, he argued. “If we have demand, there will be supply,” the gentleman explained.

Who was Benjamin’s comrade? Representative Tom Campbell, Republican of California, who is running against Benjamin and Feinstein for the same Senate seat.

The unprecedented Green-Republican press conference shows how remarkable this California race has become. Feinstein, the incumbent and a tough former San Francisco mayor with a long history of veering to the right of her own party, remains the clear front runner in her race for a second full term. But she is facing a double-team from Benjamin, a veteran activist and co-founder of the activist group Global Exchange, and from Campbell, a libertarian Republican who comes at Feinstein from both left and right.

In a year when most Senate contests follow the standard Democratversus-Republican script, the California Senate race offers the political equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino story line. To be sure, a state that has elected Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, Ron Dellums, and Bob Dornan can hardly be said to follow predictable patterns. But this really may be an “anything goes” year. With Feinstein frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Al Gore, Campbell says “there are some incredible variables in this race.”

Even if the sixty-six-year-old Feinstein is passed over for the Vice Presidency, the California contest creates prospects–particularly involving Benjamin’s energetic third party campaign–that could make for a far more interesting contest than the over-hyped Hillary Clinton-Rick Lazio race in New York.

The sage bet is still that–barring a Gore intervention–Feinstein will win. She continues to lead in the polls, and she’s far ahead on the fundraising field: She outflanked Campbell by 5 to 1 before the March primary and Benjamin by better than 20 to 1. But the challengers have stirred the pot.

“Feinstein may not have to run a marathon, but she’s going to break a sweat,” says Jennifer Duffy, the editor of the Cook Report, a newsletter that analyzes Congressional races.

Already, California observers say, Benjamin and Campbell are ahead in that rarest of all political competitions: the battle of ideas.

“So much of politics is just polls and strategy and sound bites, but I think that Tom Campbell and Medea Benjamin really are interested in ideas and issues,” says Arianna Huffington, the syndicated columnist who resides in Santa Monica and has stretched some political boundaries of her own on a journey from right to left. “They are pushing the debate in new directions.”

Feinstein has never been accused of pushing the electoral envelope. A millionaire political insider who was first elected to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors in 1969, she ascended to the city’s top post after the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone (who was killed with Supervisor Harvey Milk). More conservative than the city she governed, Feinstein did not earn high marks as mayor. Her tenure was summed up recently by the San Francisco Bay Guardian as “generally horrible”: “Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco for nine long years, and she did as much as anyone in the city’s history to bring in big developers, transform the skyline, create a financially and environmentally unsustainable high-rise boom, and lay the groundwork for the gentrification that is now transforming the city’s population,” the Guardian editors wrote. “She was, and is, a darling of big business.”

After losing a 1990 campaign for governor to Republican Pete Wilson, Feinstein turned around and won a special election to fill the last two years of Wilson’s Senate term. Two years later, she beat the Republican tide of 1994 to retain her seat in what was then the costliest Senate race in history. She spent $15 million to compete against Michael Huffington (then-husband of Arianna), who spent $30 million.

In that 1994 campaign, Feinstein went out of her way to distance herself from liberal positions–even running a television commercial in which she celebrated the fact that she was booed at the California Democratic Convention for her enthusiasm for the death penalty. In the Senate, she has established a record as a Clintonesque “New Democrat.” A lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key member of the Judiciary Committee, she has earned wildly erratic ratings from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), dipping as low as thirty-five on a 100 scale in some years–a figure far below that of several Republican Senators. Feinstein drew the ire of Bill of Rights fans when she joined Republicans to endorse the Flag Desecration Amendment, supported the development of a national I.D. card program, and backed harsh crime bills. She favors Internet censorship, limits on habeas corpus protections, expansion of the drug war, and the so-called Prison Litigation Reform Act, which, in the words of the ACLU, “stripped the federal courts of much of their power to correct even the most egregious prison conditions.”

Feinstein has established herself as one of the Senate’s most prodigious fundraisers. And, on key votes, she rarely strays from the business-friendly agenda of the Democratic Leadership Council. She was, for instance, one of the Congress’s most determined advocates for granting China permanent normal trade status. While California Democrats such as Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Nancy Pelosi have been leaders in raising questions about human rights abuses in China, Feinstein counts Chinese President Jiang Zemin as a friend and, according to the Los Angeles Times, “has been central to negotiations to bring China into the World Trade Organization.”

“Dianne Feinstein has some good positions on issues such as choice, and we respect her for that. But on too many issues she has positioned herself as a conservative New Democrat,” says Jim Clarke, executive director of the Southern California chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action (SCADA), the largest branch of the liberal group in the country. While the ADA generally backs Democrats, SCADA endorsed Benjamin before California’s March primary, and its leaders have helped the Green candidate build her base in the L.A. area. “We’re about liberal politics, and that’s not Dianne Feinstein. We really object to her stances on the death penalty, the China vote, Kosovo, to name just a few issues,” says Clarke.

While Feinstein has raised the hackles of many Democrats, Campbell has made a career out of disturbing the GOP equilibrium. During his five terms in the House, Campbell has opposed the Supreme Court nominations of Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, voted against Newt Gingrich for Speaker of the House, and battled to block anti-immigrant and anti-gay propositions on the California ballot. His advocacy of abortion rights, gay rights, and a shift in the focus of the drug war from punishment to treatment has made him anathema to Christian conservatives. One of his GOP primary opponents, San Diego County Supervisor Bill Horn, described Campbell as “Dianne Feinstein in boxer shorts” and regularly began speeches to COP audiences by asking: “Republicans, do you want your U.S. Senate nominee to be more liberal than the Democrats?”

If Campbell strays from the Republican line on social issues, he abandons both the Republican and the Democratic establishment on international affairs. The Republican Senate candidate says he preaches a politics “not written by anybody’s gospel but my own.” That’s certainly the case when it comes to U.S. militarism. When Bill Clinton steered the United States into a war over Kosovo, Campbell fought the policy on the floor of the House and in the courts, where he sought to have the deployment declared unconstitutional. Campbell has added his name to letters opposing economic sanctions against Iraq and Cuba. He has joined a handful of Democrats in challenging the wisdom of the ongoing U.S. bombing campaign against Baghdad, and he takes the rare position of suggesting that the U.S. cut economic assistance to Israel.

“On intervention issues, he really is remarkable, better than most Democrats,” says Van Gosse, the director of the voter campaign of Peace Action (formerly SANE/Freeze).

On leave from Stanford’s Law School, where he taught before going to Congress, Campbell traces many of his iconoclastic stances to his reverence for the U.S. Constitution. “I’ve spent a lot of time studying the Constitution, teaching about it,” he says. “I had a hard time reconciling what I read in the Constitution with what I saw the Administration doing on Kosovo, for instance.” Yet, Campbell is well aware that his interpretation of the Constitution often puts him on the left end of the political continuum, and–for a Republican–he is remarkably comfortable appealing to progressives.

“I think there are a lot of reasons why progressive voters should consider my candidacy,” Campbell said in a conversation following the primary. “My position on the aid package to Colombia is a good example. I recognize the danger of that proposal. I’m talking about it in the context of Vietnam, suggesting that there are real risks in making this sort of military commitment in another country without adequate debate or serious consideration of what it means.”

On drug policy, Campbell is out front. His proposal to allow communities to provide drugs to addicts to reduce criminal activity “probably is as far in [the direction of supporting drug legalization or decriminalization] as any plan by a serious candidate could be,” says the Orange County Register.

For all his uncharacteristic stances, however, Campbell is far from a progressive purist. A fierce campaigner for federal spending cuts, the Silicon Valley Republican proudly touts his National Taxpayers Union ranking as “the cheapest member of Congress.” “In 1992 and 1998,” he brags, “I was the absolute lowest spender in Congress.” Campbell’s a big backer of the Balanced Budget Amendment. He wants to replace the federal income tax with a sales tax. He opposes any increased federal role in setting education standards or aiding public schools. He opposes federal affirmative action programs. And he wants to cut federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. In the midst of a farm crisis, Campbell remains an ardent backer of proposals to eliminate agriculture subsidies. And, after first condemning Feinstein for her support of permanent normal trade relations with China, he made an abrupt last-minute switch on the issue and voted with her for the Wall Street-backed measure.

Above all, says Clarke, “Campbell would be a vote for Republican control of the Senate. He’s a duck out of water in his own party, but he’s still in the party.”

By contrast, “Medea Benjamin really is a progressive candidate–in every sense,” Clarke says. Campbell may be intriguing on a number of high-profile issues, explains the veteran California politico, but Benjamin is the candidate with a track record on the left. A former economist and nutritionist in Latin America and Africa for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, and the Swedish International Development Agency, Benjamin has been a leader in the fight to expose sweatshop abuses and to promote the idea of fair trade. Her group, Global Exchange, has been credited by The Washington Post for putting “labor rights on the human rights agenda.”

Benjamin also helped organize the anti-WTO protests in Seattle last fall and the April 16 demonstrations against the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C. She was physically ejected by authorities from the WTO session in Seattle, but stirred controversy on the left when she criticized anarchist protesters who broke store windows. When Benjamin accepted the Green Party’s Senate nomination, she said, “In the aftermath of the Seattle protests against the undemocratic, corporate-biased World Trade Organization, I am more convinced than ever that the majority of Americans–and certainly the majority of Californians–agree that we need a society that puts human needs and sustainable development before corporate profits.”

Benjamin’s campaign is benefiting from years of effective organizing by California Greens, who have won local posts in communities from Santa Monica to Arcata. And as Ralph Nader has stepped up his Presidential candidacy on the Green line, Benjamin may get a further boost.

She is already drawing support from Angela Davis, Earth Island Institute founder David Brower, African American, Latino, and Asian American grassroots activists, and union members who object to the state AFL-CIO’s backing of Feinstein. In the primary, the state’s two largest alternative weekly newspapers, the Bay Guardian and L.A. Weekly, endorsed Benjamin, with the latter saying, “From outside the Senate, she’s already done more to create a more just and livable planet than about ninety-seven of the members inside the Senate.”

Benjamin is serious about running a serious campaign. She’s traveling throughout the state, has assembled a staff of six, has opened four campaign offices, and will soon exceed her initial fundraising goal of $250,000. In August, her campaign will publish a pamphlet, “I, Senator,” designed to help voters imagine how radically the election of a single Green Senator might alter politics. At the same time, they’ll launch a statewide bus tour that will highlight links between local activism and Benjamin’s campaign themes: replacing the minimum wage with a national living wage, redirecting spending from prison construction projects to support for public education, electoral reforms such as public financing of campaigns and proportional representation, universal health care, and policies that support family farms, ban genetically modified foods, and protect the environment.

Whether Benjamin will make a dent in the two party politics of California remains to be seen, but she’s already getting a quirky assist from Campbell. In addition to appearing with Benjamin at the San Francisco press conference, he’s talking about joining her in debates–even if Feinstein begs off. “Campbell’s open to all kinds of ideas,” says Benjamin. “He’s been great.”

Still, Benjamin shudders to think that progressives might vote for the Republican. “You can’t have someone who believes in cutting government, privatization, and deregulation representing the progressive agenda,” she says. “Tom has taken some good stands on some important issues. I share a lot of his views on intervention and the drug war. But he’s certainly not someone progressives should vote for. He’s bad on universal health care. He prides himself on voting to eliminate what I see as necessary programs. He’s bad on trade and corporate issues.”

Ironically, progressive Californians may have an easier time voting for Benjamin for Senate than Nader for President. “I run into people who say they love the Green Party, they love Ralph Nader, but they can’t vote for Ralph because they’re afraid of George W. Bush,” the Green explains. “On the other hand, these same people say: I can vote for you because Tom Campbell is no worse than Dianne Feinstein; in fact, he’s better than her on some issues.”

Benjamin understands that the campaign is about much more than her own candidacy. “We have to build an alternative, and I think we really have an opportunity to do that this year in California,” says Benjamin. “The Green Party is growing in parts of California where it hasn’t been strong up to this point; we’re building alliances with labor, we’re building a Green alliance with people of color. This goes beyond just the vote count on November 7–which I think will be good. What’s really exciting is that, after Seattle, and in the whole complicated politics of this year, we’ve found an opening to create a lasting alternative, and we’re seizing it.”

John Nichols is Editorial Page Editor of The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. He writes frequently about electoral politics for The Progressive.

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