SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, and Kevin de Leon, a Democrat in the California state Senate, rarely have much in common. But they’re united in their condemnation this week of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feinstein is playing a central role in the battle over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. She received a confidential letter earlier this summer from a constituent who accused Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her at a party more than three decades ago, allegations that didn’t begin to surface publicly until last week. Feinstein has argued she sought to honor the confidentiality of the letter, whose author, Christine Blasey Ford, came forward last weekend in an interview with The Washington Post.
McConnell slammed Feinstein for keeping the letter “secret until the 11th hour.” De Leon, who is challenging Feinstein in the Nov. 6 election, said her actions amounted to a “failure of leadership.” Feinstein defended herself in a Tuesday interview, and Ford’s lawyer has said she acted appropriately.
The accusation, which Kavanaugh has denied, is consuming Washington, where the nomination’s fate is suddenly in limbo. It’s also giving de Leon an opening to criticize Feinstein in his uphill election fight.
“That was a valuable piece of info that you could have kept the confidentiality and kept her privacy and still dealt with the issue at hand,” he said in a Monday interview.
He said he would have shared the letter with fellow Democrats on the Judiciary Committee while redacting identifying information and said Feinstein should have asked Kavanaugh about his character during hearings.
Feinstein, who has been backed by several fellow Senate Democrats, said Tuesday she was honoring Ford’s request to keep the information confidential.
“I did not know whether this woman would come forward or not. I did not know if it was credible,” she told reporters. “We were looking for a way to get it investigated by an outside investigator and what we found is we had to go through (the rules committee) and we were discussing the pros and cons of doing that, so it hasn’t been easy.”
Republicans also seized on a remark from Feinstein to Fox News that they saw as casting doubt on elements of Ford’s story. “I can’t say everything’s truthful,” Feinstein said when asked about Ford. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, tweeted the quote and said it’s “now clear” why Feinstein kept the allegation secret.
Feinstein later clarified to reporters that she finds Ford credible, based on what she knowns so far. She added, “One of the things I know is what happens to women in this situation and how difficult it is, and I hope people will let her be.”
Feinstein faces a fellow Democrat in November because of California’s unusual primary system that sends the two highest vote-getters to the general election regardless of party. As one of California’s best-known politicians and one with deep pockets, Feinstein has kept de Leon’s challenge at bay even as he’s sought to paint her as too deferential to President Donald Trump. On Tuesday, he released an online advertisement linking Feinstein’s language in the 1990s about immigrants in the country illegally to Trump’s rhetoric today.
But his criticism on the Kavanaugh issue, made in statements, interviews and even a fundraising appeal, doesn’t come without risk.
He led the state Senate last fall when accusations of widespread misconduct rocked the Capitol. De Leon’s former housemate was forced to resign after allegations he made advances on multiple women, including inviting a young woman in a fellowship program back to the house the two shared in Sacramento. De Leon denied knowledge of it and moved out after the news broke. He also hired outside investigators to look into complaints and introduced a resolution to expel Democratic Sen. Tony Mendoza, who eventually resigned.
A bill to give whistleblower protections to state legislative employees died repeatedly in the Senate, only passing this year, spurred by the #MeToo movement. That bill’s sponsor, Republican Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, took to Twitter to criticize de Leon, and women who led the Capitol’s #MeToo movement chimed in.
“As one of the CA Capitol women who helped elevate the issue I can attest to Kevin’s lack of action,” tweeted Alicia Lewis, a Sacramento lobbyist. Lewis said she voted for de Leon in the California primary but will now back Feinstein in November.
De Leon said the whistleblower bill didn’t explicitly reference sexual harassment victims until this year, when it passed the Senate, though Melendez said it was always the intent to protect employees who report harassment. He called comparisons between his and Feinstein’s actions “apples to oranges,” and noted the California Legislature’s complete overhaul of its procedures for handling sexual misconduct this year following the #MeToo movement.
Elected to the Senate in 1992, Feinstein was one of the first women to sit on the Judiciary Committee. She joined the panel as its previously all-male membership was grappling with stinging criticism of its handling of Anita Hill’s sexual harassment allegations against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Over the years, Feinstein has developed a reputation for her preference of decorum and discretion. But that approach clashes with the more aggressive style that a new generation of liberal lawmakers such as de Leon is promoting.
Upending decorum has never been Feinstein’s style, said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California.
“It seems to me this is in line with the way Dianne Feinstein has always behaved, very carefully, very circumspectly,” Jeffe said.
Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman in Washington contributed to this report.
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