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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Dianne Feinstein : The Race for the Senate: Experienced Politican--But Does It Help?

October 30, 1994|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a producer for Fox News and a contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and "Morning Edition." He spoke with Dianne Feinstein during a campaign swing through Los Angeles

"All my life I've tried to make government work," says Senator Dianne Feinstein. In her first two years in the U.S. Senate she's done what many consider a remarkable job. She landed positions on two powerful committees--judiciary and appropriations. That helped her get measures passed that brought the state money for earthquake assistance, education, prisons and agriculture.

But in a state--and a nation--angry at politicians and at government, such achievements may work against her in her battle for reelection. Feinstein, 61, first came to national prominence in 1977, when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated. Feinstein, then a city supervisor, announced the deaths in a dramatic press conference, and was soon appointed mayor. She lost a governor's race to Pete Wilson in 1990, but then won the right to serve out the final two years of his vacated U.S. Senate seat in 1992, defeating Wilson-appointee John Seymour.

Now she faces one-term Republican Rep. Mike Huffington in her reelection bid. The campaign has been expensive and nasty. In March, Feinstein seemed a sure bet to return to the Senate--polls showed her leading the little-known Huffington by as much as 30 points. Today that lead has been whittled down to single digits by an extensive, expensive and negative Huffington advertising campaign. The challenger has painted Feinstein as a "tax-and-spend Democrat," a professional politician, a Clinton-clone and pawn to special interests. Recently his ads have charged she voted for federal programs that enriched a company controlled by her wealthy investor husband, Richard Blum.

Feinstein has fired back with vigor. Her ads portray Huffington as a spoiled rich kid with no political record who is trying to buy a Senate seat. They've lambasted him for refusing to make public his personal income tax records. And they've portrayed him as a modern-day carpetbagger, who maintained a legal address in Texas until just before running for Congress in order to avoid California state income taxes. Due to the angry nature of modern political campaigning and the foul mood of voters, Feinstein's ads have only rarely pointed out her legislative successes.

Still, while Huffington is attracting a good number of so-called Reagan Democrats, Feinstein counts among her supporters a number of prominent Republicans. In spite of her slim lead, Feinstein recently came out in opposition to the popular Proposition 187, which would deny social services to undocumented immigrants. She now faces an almost certain last minute blitzkrieg of Huffington advertising, and dwindling campaign coffers from which to respond.

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Question: What are your legislative priorities if you're reelected to the Senate?

Answer: My legislative agenda continues to be violence, illegal immigration and welfare reform. In the area of violence, my job will be to see that California gets its fair share out of the crime bill. I've submitted a bill to the Senate called the Illegal Immigration Control Act. It would stop illegal immigration at the border by giving Border Patrol the tools they need to do the job. It would also remove any cash welfare benefits, like Medi-Cal, from people here illegally. It would double the penalties for document fraud, and for illegal alien smuggling. I would fund these increased efforts with a border crossing fee of $1.00, which would provide more than $400 million per year.

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Q: If these measures were successful, and we did severely limit the amount of undocumented immigrants, the largest impact would be on agriculture. What do you say to the growers who depend primarily on undocumented workers to harvest their crops?

A: We've got over a million people unemployed in the state, and my own recommendation to the growers is that they really make an effort to recruit people in cities who are legal and willing to do this kind of work. I think they may find surprising numbers of people who want to work.

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Q: Why did you decide to come out against Proposition 187, and was it a tough decision to make?

A: Yes, it was, because a lot of people were encouraging me to support it. We spent a lot of time studying it. My conclusion is that it probably violates both the state and federal constitutions. It violates federal law, and as such would put the state at risk of losing about $15 billion in federal money. Now I don't believe we want to do that.

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