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RUBEN NAVARRETTE JR: Outgoing Sen. Dianne Feinstein ignored Latinos

Consider four facts that, when taken together, help define the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

The 89-year-old California Democrat will retire when her current term ends in 2025, wrapping up 30 years in the U.S. Senate and half a century in politics. Feinstein’s public service career began in 1970 with a stint on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. She later served as mayor of San Francisco before getting elected to the Senate in 1992.

The first fact involves demographics. California is one of the most heavily Hispanic states in the country.

The second fact is about timing. Most of that growth took place over the past 30 years, while Feinstein served in the Senate. In 1990, Latinos accounted for 26 percent of California’s population. Today, it’s 40 percent.

The third fact touches on politics. Feinstein always enjoyed strong Hispanic support. In 2021, a poll from the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley found that 41 percent of Hispanics approved of the job she was doing. Only 32 percent of whites did.

And the fourth fact is about branding. Feinstein was an early ambassador for equity, diversity and inclusion before DEI was even a thing. But in her world, the beneficiaries of all that DEI tended to be women. I’ve read dozens of news articles about Feinstein over the years and combed through many of her speeches as well. She has thought a lot about the barriers she broke as the first female mayor of San Francisco and as one of the first women to represent California in the Senate. However, Hispanics have been an afterthought, if we were thought about at all.

Good politicians take care of voters who take care of them. And the smart ones will give a nod to the demographics of the region they serve.

Imagine being the mayor of Boston and ignoring the Irish.

Unfortunately, Feinstein had a narrow bandwidth. She had to really care about an issue to take it on.

As a native Californian, I remember three causes that got her attention: banning assault weapons, protecting reproductive rights and trying to secure an immigrant workforce for agribusiness.

That last one led her to sponsor the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act of 2007, which would have given “blue cards” to undocumented immigrants who worked in agriculture. The bill died.

Meanwhile, the senator didn’t seem the least bit curious about the plight of Hispanics — even those in her native California. They have been failed by every system that is supposed to serve them (education, health care, criminal justice etc.). Yet, Feinstein has not lent a hand.

I wondered: Am I being fair? So I sought a second opinion. I got an unvarnished one from Arnold Torres, a California-based policy analyst who has worked on passing legislation in Washington.

“Those of us who worked in politics didn’t feel that we had a real friend in Dianne Feinstein,” Torres said. “She came from a city (San Francisco) that does not have a large number of Hispanics. She didn’t spend time with Hispanics. She didn’t have a lot of Hispanic staff. As the Hispanic population grew, it was up to her to reach out. She didn’t.”

Add to that the fact that Feinstein had a conservative bent on immigration — which included support for border enforcement. This probably helped her weather the 1990s, when anti-immigrant sentiment was sweeping across California. But it did not endear her to Hispanics, many of whom are skeptical of politicians who exploit the issue.

Yet, Torres doesn’t put all the blame on the senator.

“Hispanics kept voting for her,” he acknowledged. “Where was the Hispanic leadership in places like the California Legislature? They could have demanded more attention, but they just accepted the neglect.”

Hispanics in the Golden State are intensely loyal Democrats, and so a high percentage of them always vote for Democratic incumbents. Besides, the Republican brand is toxic with Hispanics because of the GOP’s fearmongering over immigration. Still, Hispanics had the right to expect some loyalty from Feinstein in return. They received little.

“It’s easy to blame Feinstein for neglecting Hispanics,” Torres said. “But it’s also right. That’s part of her legacy. Those are the facts. They cannot be denied.”

Some might have assumed that Feinstein would be a constant and vocal champion for one of the most important groups in California, a segment of crucial swing voters that decides national elections.

It’s a lovely thought. And if you believe it, I’d love to sell you the Golden Gate Bridge.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is crimscribe@icloud.com. His podcast, “Ruben in the Center,” is available through every podcast app.

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