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Feinstein Comfortable on the Fence

September 25, 1997|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — The political people closest to Sen. Dianne Feinstein say it's their best guess she'll run for governor next year. She longs for the job and, realistically, 1998 is her last shot.

The position will be open--Gov. Pete Wilson can't run for reelection because of term limits--and she's 64.

"Being senator is a great job," one longtime advisor says, "but at the end of the day, her heart's in California. She wants to be governor and leave her mark on the state."

Observes another: "If she didn't want to run, all she'd have to say is, 'I'm not running.' And she hasn't done that."

And another: "I think she's going to run. But I wouldn't bet my house on it."

None of these people want to be quoted by name. But, for the record, the veteran advisors who know her best--who form the core of what generally is considered the best Democratic campaign team in California--are consultants Bill Carrick and Kam Kuwata and press secretary Susan Kennedy.

Her aides basically see it this way: Feinstein is a native Californian who believes the state badly needs rebuilding--especially its education system and infrastructure--and she envisions this task as her destiny, in the tradition of legendary Govs. Earl Warren and Pat Brown.

That's the reason to run. The reason not to is she has been around this track before and knows it can be brutal. It would be her fourth statewide race in five elections, starting with a narrow loss to Wilson for governor in 1990.

The word on the street is Feinstein was beaten up so badly in 1994 by Republican Michael Huffington in his losing Senate campaign that she may now have a glass jaw. Indeed, her poll numbers still haven't fully recovered from that fight.

Feinstein dreads running, but she can't become governor unless she runs. So she will, her advisors think.

What does Feinstein think? She's trying not to think about it at all.


"Realistically, I see it as sometime this fall when I make up my mind," Feinstein told me Wednesday by telephone from her Senate office. And when would she tell the rest of us? "Oh, by year's end, I think."

She quickly added: "I don't want to discuss that. I'm trying to do my work here right now."

On her agenda before Congress adjourns are a victims' rights constitutional amendment, a gang violence bill, campaign finance reform and blocking the importation of Israeli assault weapons.

Told that state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the presumptive GOP gubernatorial nominee, opposes bills to tighten California's ban on assault weapons and to forbid the manufacture and sale of so-called Saturday night specials, Feinstein acridly said of her potential rival: "Yeah, Mr. Guns."

For months, Feinstein also has been working with education experts on a school reform plan. "We're trying to look at ways education might be restructured," she said. "Over many years, schools have taken the path of least resistance--promoting kids regardless of whether they should be promoted, not concentrating on a core curriculum, the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies. . . .

"It's not easy to do. It all costs money and lots of it. We're trying to see if we can get some numbers that are doable, so this isn't in dreamland."

What will she do with her plan when it's finished? "If I ran for governor, I'd run with it," she said. "If I didn't, I'd put it on the ballot [as an initiative]."


At least one advisor winces at the prospect of a U.S. senator knocking herself out to sponsor a state initiative that, if passed, would be implemented by somebody else--the next governor. "There's only one way to change public education," the aide says, "and that is to be governor."

One reason Feinstein has delayed a decision is that her strategists have assured her she safely can; she can continue focusing full time on the Senate job she increasingly enjoys.

Unlike mega-millionaire Al Checchi or even Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, the only two announced Democratic candidates, Feinstein already is well known by voters. In fact, she's the only potential candidate of either party who has won a race at the top of the state ticket.

She leads everybody in polls.

The longer she stays out of the race, the longer she can avoid being slammed by opponents.

She has a big donor list of 300,000 names, her advisors insist, that can generate ample campaign cash within a short time.

Feinstein's indecision has created impatience and frustration among pols. But most voters, I suspect, aren't exactly fretting. The advisors are right about one thing: She can take her time deciding. Whether they're right about her ultimate decision we'll learn "by year's end."

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