Kevin de León announces challenge to U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein: "Californians deserve change"

The president of the California Senate announced Sunday that he will challenge Feinstein, 84, in the 2018 midterms elections. The campaign is seen as a generational clash over the political future of California and the leadership of the Democratic Party.
16 Oct 2017 – 7:33 AM EDT

It might appear odd to call a 50-year-old politician young. But, in the case of Kevin de Leon, it's appropriate enough when his age is contrasted with the octogenarian U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D.- Ca.), his political rival as of Sunday.

The president of the California Senate announced that he will challenge Feinstein, 84, in the 2018 midterms elections. The race between De León and Feinstein is seen as a generational clash over California's political future and more broadly for the leadership of the Democratic Party at the national level.

"Feinstein has been in the Senate for almost a quarter of a century. Californians deserve change," de León told Univision News in an exclusive interview minutes after making his announcement official in an online video sent to his supporters.

De León, son an undocumented migrant from Guatemala, is a member of California's new batch of Latino politicians and a fierce critic of President Donald Trump. Many believe Feinstein, the 84-year-old establishment favorite, is out of step with California's Democratic voters.

The campaign is an uphill struggle for De León who does not have his rival's name recognition and powerful donors. No stranger to disadvantage, De León highlights his humble roots, in a poor neighborhood in San Diego.

His dazzling career from immigration activism to politics makes him optimistic about his odds: "I've always been told that you cannot do that, that you have to wait ... that's the story of the humble people here in California and in the rest of the country," says De León, speaking fluent Spanish.

Although California is the state with the largest Latino population (15 million), it has never had a Latino senator representing in Washington. California's Hispanic population has doubled since 1992, the year Feinstein took office.

De León already made history in 2014 by becoming the first Latino in more than 130 years to preside over the state Senate.

In his campaign launch video, De León introduces himself to Californians with images of his modest childhood and his public career. De León presents his bid as part of a "historic struggle for the very soul of America, against a President without one."

The California legislator, who represents a district which encompasses east and downtown Los Angeles, will make a formal public announcement at Los Angeles Trade Technical College on Wednesday, at 12:30 p.m. PT.

De León is one of the visible faces of the "resistance" against Trump in California. He sponsored the new "sanctuary law" that limits the collaboration of local police forces with federal immigration authorities. It is estimated that there are more than 2.3 million undocumented immigrants in the state.

California has a top-two primary system whereby the two most popular candidates in a first ballot on June 5 of next year will go into the final election on November 6, regardless of party affiliation.

Republicans are not competitive in California so analysts believe the final round would be decided between Feinstein, backed by the party establishment, and a challenger on the left.

Feinstein may be the establishment candidate, but her popularity has taken a toll and in surveys almost 50 percent disagree with her decision to seek reelection. "Experience counts," she said on Monday when announcing her decision to seek a sixth term, meaning she would be 91 by the time it expires.

De León has the support of union leaders and immigration activists. Recent reports about De Leon's plans to run resonated with Latino activists.

"State Senator Kevin de León is the future of the Democratic Party: progressive and Latino. He's a proven leader deeply committed leader to improving the lives of all Californians," Mayra Macias, political director of Latino Victory Project told Univision News.

Immigrant son

He is the son of Carmen Osorio, an undocumented Guatemalan who as a single mother worked cleaning houses in San Diego to pay for his son's studies. He attended the University of California at Santa Barbara and received his degree from Pitzer College and the Claremont Colleges.

He never met his father, Andrés León, so he decided to change his last name to De León to have a sense of belonging.

De León was a teacher and made his way into politics as a community organizer during the 1990s, when he campaigned against Proposition 187, which sought to deny education and public health services to the undocumented.

From 2006 to 2010 he was a member of the California State Assembly, the lower house of the legislature, and in 2010 he was elected State Senator.

Progressive enough?

Bill Carrick, a Feinstein campaign strategist, questioned De Leon's progressive credentials on Sunday in an interview with the Sacramento Bee noting that the legislator supported Hillary Clinton in 2016 and 2008, instead of outsider candidates.

De León told Univision News that his record shows him consistently standing up for the most vulnerable: "My policies and my record are sufficient evidence: I am a strong defender of dreamers, the marginalized, climate change and women".

From the moment Trump won the presidential election, De León pronounced his defense of immigrants: "The president has promoted a disgusting agenda against the values of Californians, amongst them diversity and inclusion," he said at the time.

Jorge Morales Almada contributed reporting from Los Ángeles