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Feinstein Factor Is the Big Unknown

The senator has said no before, then run. If she enters, she'll foil Davis' strategy and shape how the race plays out.

August 06, 2003|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

Through three decades in politics, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein has retained the right to change her mind.

In 1971, then-San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto accused Feinstein of double-crossing him with her last-minute entry into the mayor's race after saying she had no intention of running. She finished third.

Afterward, a triumphant Alioto struck back, keeping her from being named chair of the Bay Area's pollution control board. She later told her biographer, Jerry Roberts, that in private Alioto had admonished her with a remark she never forgot. "You don't cash loser's tickets at the winner's table," he told the woman whose career he had backed until then.

In 1978, hours before San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated in their City Hall offices, Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, told reporters that she would never again run for mayor after two previous defeats.

Later in the day, she stood on the steps of City Hall to announce the deaths of her colleagues, her skirt stained with blood. The following week she was chosen interim mayor, then led the city through the aftermath with a calm dignity and went on to serve 10 years in the office.

With Saturday the deadline for filing as a replacement candidate in the Oct. 7 recall election of Gov. Gray Davis, Feinstein's final decision on whether to enter the race will shape how the campaign is fought and help determine who runs.

Even after she has publicly denounced the recall, there has been a movement by other elected Democrats to draft her as a candidate.

Republican Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor and a longtime friend, has said he would step into the race only if Feinstein were definitely out.

Even Democratic political consultants who back Davis say her entree would destroy their strategy. Davis' plan -- one backed by national Democratic leaders--is to keep a united front in the party, refusing to offer voters a Democratic alternative on the list of replacement candidates. Polls conducted by The Times indicate that Feinstein could shift the balance from voters turning down the recall to voters eager to replace Davis with the well-known senator.

Through it all, Feinstein has had little to say publicly.

In June, she denounced the recall, telling reporters: "I have no intention of running. I'm a U.S. senator and I'm seriously involved in what I do."

Caught last week by the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call for a comment, she was less definitive, saying of calls by fellow legislators for her to enter the race: "It's a very heartfelt vote of confidence and I'm appreciative of it. But I have no further comment."

Feinstein, 70, has maintained through the years that she prefers executive roles, such as mayor, to the legislative position she now holds.

As a replacement gubernatorial candidate, she would offer Democrats three key ingredients in the abbreviated, 59-day campaign: personal wealth, the ability to quickly raise large sums of money and broad name recognition.

Despite those advantages, close advisors have said now doesn't look like the time.

"If I thought she were running, I'd be making 25 fund-raising calls and 25 political calls and I'm really not doing that," said Feinstein political advisor Kam Kuwata. "Although I do believe if Dianne ran, she would win."

It would be a seat many say she has long aspired to hold.

"Nobody has wanted to be governor of California more than Dianne Feinstein," said Philip Trounstine, a longtime San Jose Mercury News political editor who now runs the Survey and Public Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University. "That's the job she's truly wanted. When that became unavailable to her, she threw herself into being a U.S. senator."

She rose to the Senate from a privileged, though troubled, childhood in San Francisco where her father was a prominent doctor and her mother suffered from an undiagnosed brain disorder and a drinking problem that made her prone to violent outbursts.

At Stanford University, Feinstein, born Dianne Goldman, became student body vice president despite opposition to women running for office. She first ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969. By then, she was the mother of a child from a short first marriage and was remarried to a well-known surgeon, Bertram Feinstein. She later married her current husband, billionaire investment banker Richard Blum.

She lost a tight gubernatorial race to Republican Pete Wilson in 1990. She won a special election in 1992 to finish the last two years of Wilson's term in the U.S. Senate and successfully fought back a fierce challenge two years later by Michael Huffington, who is currently considering a run in the recall.

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