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At Tense Town Hall, Dianne Feinstein, Audience Attempt to Explain Government to Each Other

The senator and her constituents agree on a lot—while talking right past one another.

Senator Dianne Feinstein onstage with former supervisor and member of the BART Board of Directors Bevan Dufty.

 

Ever since January, when Senator Dianne Feinstein kicked off the Trump era by voting yea on a few of the president’s cabinet nominations, her constituents have clamored for a town hall. Today they finally got one—albeit on a rainy Monday morning, a scheduling decision that had some of the attendees grumbling about childcare and work conflicts. And true to form, a gap between the 83-year-old senator and many of her most vocal constituents was obvious from the outset, with a crowd of about 500 at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center in West Portal growing increasingly impatient with their center-left representative.

Dozens of constituents, who lined up at microphones to ask questions, and who spoke to San Francisco about their complaints beforehand, came to the meeting frustrated that Senator Feinstein was being too much of an incrementalist, and was refusing to act as their megaphone in Washington. “I feel that Feinstein is playing it safe,” said Mari Turvey, a member of the activist group Indivisible SF. “I’d like to see her take more vocal positions. She is a leader and she should use that voice to continue to put pressure on the administration.” At one point during the proceedings, audience members shouted that Bernie Sanders makes more TV appearances than DiFi. 


But Feinstein met the fever in the room with the cool explanations of a Beltway operator—one who’s reportedly leaning toward running for reelection in 2018. Rather than use her opening remarks to rally a hungry, desperate-to-be-galvanized crowd, the senator delivered a wonky, multipronged disclaimer about the limitations of government bodies and what they can accomplish. After a tangent about the kinds of compromises that were possible when she first took office in 1992, Feinstein explained how hard it is to get anything done now that the majority party holds the Senate floor hostage unless the minority party can hustle up 60 votes. “Today, it’s supermajority rule,” she said. “And that’s unfortunate.” Regardless of her point, the remarks felt like a bunch of handwaving. And the room was frustrated. While her audience was busy pointing desperately at the Trumpster fire blazing on our national stage, DiFi had launched into a civics lesson. 

Which is a strange dynamic for a lawmaker and constituents who, for the most part, agree. Feinstein voted against confirming Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and brand-new Supreme Court justice Neil Gorsuch. She is critical of the recent strike on Syria and vocal about the limits on the president’s power to use wartime force without a Congressional declaration of war. She has vowed to protect refugees, the environment, Planned Parenthood, and Obamacare, and to take on money in politics by crafting legislation that takes aim at Citizens United, among many other issues dear to her liberal base's heart. But there’s substance, and there’s style—and Feinstein's style at today’s town hall was supremely offputting to many in attendance.

“I’d just like to know, Senator, if there’s a red line that the Democrats in the House and the Senate are going to draw where you say, ‘We cannot work with these fascists in the White House,” asked Master Steve Rapport—another Indivisible SF member—drawing wild cheers from the audience. “You’ve given me an idea,” Feinstein responded, and asked to take Rapport’s name and phone number. “Next question.” Boooo, went the audience. The prospect of a strategy that would proceed in private, offstage, felt profoundly unfair. “What’s the idea?” someone yelled. Dozens of arms shot up, waving dozens of yellow signs preprinted with the phrase “What are you going to do about it?” 

At this, Feinstein, whose style is pretty much the polar opposite of grandstanding, grew impatient. “All of this takes a plan,” she said. “You’ve got to work something out. If anything needs to get voted on, you need the vote. You can sit here and pound your fists and I can show you what I’ve gotten done and you can take a look at it, and I’d be surprised if you found too may senators who have gotten more done.”

But that was in the pre-Trump era. The more things change, you could say, the more DiFi stays the same. As she spoke, a renegade audience member crossed in front of the stage, proudly waving a homemade “Barbara Lee 2018 sign.” Security frowned, but the woman made it up the aisle unperturbed, beaming. (Lee has not put herself forward to run.) Others, including organizer David Carlos Salaverry, are in search of a candidate from farther left to challenge Feinstein in a primary.

Feinstein, though, was still making her case for working the machinery of the political system we had on November 8, 2016. "I don’t get [things done] by making statements I can’t deliver,” she said. "I get there through some caution, some discussion, some smart help, and good lawyers. And we generally get where we’re going.” 


 

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