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California and the West

Feinstein Finds Comfort Zone in Capitol's Most Exclusive Club

Politics: She has adjusted to the arcane world of the Senate and to shepherding legislation, and prefers that to the rigors of campaigning for governor.

January 22, 1998|FAYE FIORE and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Not even the Washington air seemed friendly when Dianne Feinstein arrived at the Capitol as the senator from California.

The pollen was aggravating her allergies, she missed her granddaughter, her marriage was being put to a bicoastal test, and the power she wielded as mayor of San Francisco now had to be shared with 99 other U.S. senators, most of them white men.

During her first months here in 1993, she had spent hours trying to master the arcane protocol of the most exclusive club in America. One day, she dropped the massive tome of Senate rules onto her office coffee table with an exasperated thud.

"I felt in my first six months," she confided, "like I could chew nails here."

But five years later, the 64-year-old politician has decided Washington is a place she's not ready to leave, not even for one last chance to chase a lifelong dream of running the biggest state in the union.

The Senate is still a club, but now Feinstein is a member. The rules are still arcane, but she's learned how to play.

"She's listened to," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee on which Feinstein sits. "We have some people that talk all the time--everybody says, 'OK, fine, they're talking.' Then you have others who people listen to, and she is listened to."

Feinstein began as the reluctant senator with one eye on the governor's mansion, a politician thought to regard Congress as a way station to Sacramento.

Somewhere along the way, she not only grew into the job but also grew to like it. So the 800-pound gorilla in the governor's race, the potential Democratic candidate who said the president personally beseeched her to run, took a pass Tuesday--her 18th wedding anniversary--and nearly fouled up a romantic dinner in the process.

"I'm an active senator. . . . I tried to stretch my brain and enjoy the creativity that can be part of Washington," she said in a telephone call that ended the California political mystery of the year. "I think I'm a good senator for the state. Did I want to stop . . . my life trying to do [one thing] and turn around and do something else? I think I knew in my heart of hearts I didn't."

The baptism was not always pleasant--she earned a reputation as less than courteous to work for, a mercurial boss who could reduce an aide to tears one day, then spring for Chinese food for the entire office the next. Initially, her staff turnover was rapid.

But just as quickly, she made her legislative mark by shepherding to passage in 1994 the California Desert Protection Act, the largest federal land protection measure in 14 years and a bill that her predecessor, Democrat Alan Cranston, had spent six years trying to pass without success.

Feinstein negotiated more than 50 compromises to win bipartisan support of that bill and came to see herself as a problem solver who could push through legislation against all odds.

"She's come more to recognize the navigational hazards of legislative compromise," said Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.), who arrived with Feinstein after the 1992 elections and has become her close friend. "Dianne, through just kind of dogged persistence and determination, went and talked to one person and another person, recognized how to build a coalition--if you got one person, you could get another."

Feinstein's tenacity in lobbying has helped her bring senator after senator to often controversial legislation. She has pushed for federal reimbursement to California for the costs of illegal immigration, helped the state win billions in relief money after the 1994 Northridge earthquake and won beefed-up law enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.

She can be stubborn and eloquent at the same time. She was nicknamed the "Dragon Lady" during her crusade to ban 19 military assault-style weapons--legislation she led to passage in 1994 over the protests of the powerful National Rifle Assn.

When Idaho Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) suggested that she was a lady who knew little about guns, she dispassionately reminded him that when San Francisco Supervisor Dan White went on a shooting spree in 1978, she had tried to take the pulse of her slain colleague, Supervisor Harvey Milk, and put her finger in a bullet hole in the process.

"Senator, I know something about what firearms can do," she said with considerable restraint, a response that made the TV news that night and the front page the next morning.

In retrospect, the turning point in her Washington experience seems to have come with the passage of the assault-weapons ban, which virtually no one thought had a chance. One of her political advisors, Kam Kuwata, recalled a conversation with her the night the bill passed.

"All the guys told her it couldn't be done . . . they said, 'You can't beat the NRA.' When it passed, it was more than just, 'I got it done, when all you guys said it couldn't be done.' It was, 'I did it, I went with my instincts, and my instincts were right.' "

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