News

De León’s uphill journey toward a U.S. Senate seat

State Senate Leader Kevin de León at a conference last year in Mexico City. (Photo: Fernando Ramirez, El Universal, via AP)

The contrast between Kevin de León and his political opponent Dianne Feinstein is stark.

De León, the leader of the state Senate, grew up in the San Diego barrio of Logan Heights.  His mother cleaned houses and did odd jobs to support the family.

Feinstein grew up in a wealthy family in a posh section of San Francisco, the daughter of a prominent surgeon and a beautiful mother.

Yet they have at least one thing in common in addition to the fact that they are both Democrats – each had rougher-than-usual childhoods.

He was born Dec. 10, 1966 in Los Angeles, and on his birth certificate he is Kevin Alexander León . He says he added the “de” in an attempt to identify with his father.

Feinstein’s mother was a demented alcoholic who once tried to drown Dianne’s younger sister Lynn in the bathtub; De León never knew his father, Andres León, a cook of Chinese descent, and he does not know where his grandparents came from.

Even after his climb through the legislative ranks, almost all political observers today believe De León has a tough fight on his hands as he challenges the incumbent Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat next year.

He was born Dec. 10, 1966 in Los Angeles, and on his birth certificate he is Kevin Alexander León. He says he added the “de” in an attempt to identify with his father. Around the Capitol, he’s known as “KDL.”

He told the Sacramento Bee that when he was a boy, he was put on a Greyhound bus for a trip to Los Angeles to visit cousins in a more normal household where family members ate dinner together. In his basement bedroom back home, “I would … just cry myself to sleep,” he said. “It was a search for normalcy.”

Even after his climb through the legislative ranks, almost all political observers today believe De León  has a tough fight on his hands.

De León does not highlight his current personal life.  He has a daughter, but his 2,080-word official Senate biography makes no mention of her or a wife.

His daughter, Lluvia de Milagros Carrasco, is an account coordinator for Shallman Communications, an Encino-based political consulting firm that works with the state Senate and is on the payroll of the California Democratic Party– in addition to running De León ’s campaigns.

De León ’s campaign headquarters did not respond to queries about his campaign against Feinstein.

Feinstein, 84, has long been a pillar of California’s Democratic Establishment. Sen. Kamala Harris endorsed Feinstein immediately, as did former Sen. Barbara Boxer and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor.

But De León, 50, is used to tough fights.

He was elected state Senate leader in 2014, becoming the first Latino to hold that position in more than a century.

He overcame his hardscrabble beginnings to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara (he dropped out), then Pitzer College at the Claremont Colleges, graduating with honors. He was (à la Barack Obama) a community organizer, taught English as a second language, and spent five years at the California Teachers Association.

De León won a seat in the Assembly in 2006, moving on to the state Senate in 2010.  He was elected state Senate leader — officially known as the Senate’s president pro tem — in 2014, becoming the first Latino to hold that position in more than a century.

His diverse and densely populated 24th Senate District includes the Los Angeles neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, El Sereno, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Glassell Park, Mt. Washington, Cypress Park, Lincoln Heights, Atwater Village, Elysian Valley, Arlington Heights, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, East Hollywood, Little Armenia, Thai Town, Larchmont, Koreatown, Pico-Union, Westlake-MacArthur Park, Historic Filipinotown, Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Arts District, Civic Center, City Terrace, and East Los Angeles.

De León  is counting on that record to attract votes from the more left-leaning, “Berniecrat” wing of the Democratic Party.

During his 11 years in the Legislature, De León  has been an unswerving liberal. He’s advocated single-payer health care, greater protections for undocumented immigrants, California’s $15-per-hour minimum wage and a rebate initiative to make electric cars more affordable.

He was also a key negotiator in extending California’s cap-and-trade program, the market-based effort to curb climate-changing greenhouse gases.

De León  is counting on that record to attract votes from the more left-leaning, “Berniecrat” wing of the Democratic Party, those who favored Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.

But he may be handicapped in that quest if Berniecrats hold a grudge because he supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders last year.

Questions and speculation abound over how much De León knew about Mendoza’s alleged harassment and when he knew it.

A second complication for De León may be the sexual harassment furor now swirling through the Capitol.

His weekday roommate, state Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, has been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment, an issue that has engulfed the state Capitol since the disclosure of a letter signed by more than  140 women recounting instances of sexual misconduct on the part of lawmakers and others. A series of legislative hearings currently is exploring the issue.

De León moved out of the home they had shared and asked the Rules Committee, which he chairs, to remove Mendoza as chairman of the campaign-donation-rich Insurance, Banking and Financial Institutions Committee.

Questions and speculation abound over how much De León knew about Mendoza’s alleged harassment and when he knew it. De León  has said he was unaware of any sexual harassment by Mendoza.

In addition to the decision to  fire Mendoza, De León has moved quickly in an attempt to defuse the sexual harassment scandal, bringing in two outside investigators.

“The Law Offices of Amy Oppenheimer will be conducting an external investigation of the allegations of sexual harassment and assault, and CPS HR Consulting has been retained to review the Senate’s policies and practices against harassment, discrimination and retaliation,” he said in a statement released on October 23.

“California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future.” — Kevin de León.

“The scope of work for CPS HR Consulting will also include a review of the Senate’s outreach and recordkeeping, and the Senate is asking for recommendations on how to improve reporting and responsiveness to staff and third parties filing complaints,” the statement continued.

De León is in the forefront of California Democrats blasting President Donald Trump and styling California as a bulwark against a wayward, bullying Washington.

He also has a wealthy ally in opposing Trump — billionaire Tom Steyer, who has spent $20 million on national television advertising urging Trump’s impeachment and who, it has long been rumored, has political ambitions of his own.

“California was not a part of this nation when its history began, but we are clearly now the keeper of its future,” an election-night De León  press release declared.

In April, De León  issued a fiery statement in reply to a letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions regarding compliance with immigration law enforcement:

“It has become abundantly clear that Attorney General Sessions and the Trump Administration are basing their law enforcement policies on principles of white supremacy – not American values. Their constant and systematic targeting of diverse cities and states goes beyond constitutional norms and will be challenged at every level.”

He is term limited as of 2018, and the gubernatorial field is already jammed with four Democrats.

Feinstein, more centrist, has also had Trump troubles.

In August, she drew some boos from a Commonwealth Club audience in San Francisco when she said of Trump’s presidency, “I think we have to have some patience, I do. It’s eight months into the tenure of the presidency … We’ll have to see if he can forget himself and his feelings about himself enough to be able to have the empathy and direction that this country needs.”

If he doesn’t, she said, “there are things that can be done … I just hope he has the ability to learn and change. If he does, he can be a good president.”

De León  issued a sharp rebuttal, declaring that Democrats should “not be complicit in his reckless behavior.”

Feinstein has also come in for criticism from more liberal Democrats over her skeptical view of single-payer health care, a cause that de León  has championed. That might offset some progressive doubts about de León ’s support of Clinton.

Taking on Feinstein is a challenge, but de León has few options if he wants to continue in the front rank of California politicians.  He is term limited as of 2018, and the gubernatorial field is already jammed with four Democrats.

War with Trump; sex scandals; sanctuary cities; taxes — the coming year will test the ability of both de León  and Feinstein to navigate a turbulent and ever-changing political landscape.

“This is a very trying time where our soul is being tested against a man who has no soul,” he told a Santa Rosa audience on Nov. 17.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: