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I Always Vote For The Most Progressive Candidate-- In The California Senate Election, Who's That?

Dianne Feinstein was a dreadful, conservative member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, a dreadful, conservative mayor after George Moscone was assassinated, a terrible gubernatorial candidate and, most of all, one of the worst Democrats in the Senate. I’m overjoyed she’s leaving. I know all three of the top candidates running to replace her— Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. If the election were today I would vote for Barbara Lee. She’s the most progressive— and the most congenial— of the three. That said, I would be happy with any of the three of them winning Feinstein’s seat. They all have excellent ProgressivePunch lifetime crucial vote scores:

  • Barbara Lee- 95.54— this cycle: 97.92

  • Katie Porter- 87.53— this cycle: 94.23

  • Adam Schiff- 84.63— this cycle: 96.15

All this stuff about Schiff not being a “real” progressive is untrue. When he was first elected, he beat a Republican in an incredibly difficult race— at the time, the most expensive House race in history— and was representing a red district. I was very disappointed when he joined the Blue Dogs and started voting more conservatively than I imagined he would. Over the years, his district got less and less red and his voting record got more and more blue. He left the Blue Dogs in 2010 because he was a strong advocate for ObamaCare and the Blue Dogs were pretty negative about it. He had already been diverging from their positions more frequently than any of the other members.

A couple of years ago I was driving and listening to KPCC, the local NPR station, when he came on for an interview. When I got home, I wrote him a note and told him that he sounded great and that he belonged in the Progressive Caucus and I suggested he join. The same thing happened again a few months later. He sounded like a progressive spokesperson on a broad range of crucial issues and I told him he belonged in the CPC.

Unfortunately, he waited too long to apply and by the time he did, he was blocked. Let me go back to the ProgressivePunch score card for a moment and compare Schiff’s lifetime crucial vote score with that of a half dozen of the CPC's members in good standing:

  • Adam Schiff- 84.63– this cycle: 96.15

  • Andrea Salinas (OR)- 84.62— this cycle: 84.62

  • Donald Norcross (NJ)- 82.23— this cycle: 92.31

  • John Garamendi (CA)- 81.75— this cycle: 94.23

  • Jimmy Panetta (CA)- 80.76— this cycle: 80.77

  • Adam Smith (WA)- 75.24— this cycle: 98.08

Current members of the CPC who have endorsed each candidate:

Barbara Lee:

  • Ro Khanna

  • Ayanna Presley

Katie Porter:

  • None yet

Adam Schiff:

  • Jimmy Gomez

  • Jared Huffman

  • Mike Levin

  • Ted Lieu

  • Grace Napolitano

  • Jimmy Panetta

  • Brad Sherman

  • Mark Takano

  • Juan Vargas

Last week Schiff was walking the picket line with striking L.A. School District workers. He said that "The median income of our bus drivers and our cafeteria workers and our school aides is $25,000 a year. Who can live on $25,000 a year? Those are poverty wages… It cost about $1,700 to rent a one-bedroom apartment. That means for the people that we're talking about, they have to spend 85% of their income just to keep a roof over their heads.” That’s exactly the kind of thing Katie or Barbara would say. Last night, he told me that "Too many individuals are struggling to make ends meet in this country. It’s not that they aren’t working hard-- they are working harder than ever-- but they simply are not earning enough to get by. If we continue to pay people poverty wages, they are going to continue to live in poverty. We must raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and ensure that no one has to choose between putting food on the table, buying medicine, or keeping a roof over their heads."

As for the activists who are always complaining that Schiff takes a ton of corporate PAC money— which he did— he’s the not only candidate in this race who did but he is the only candidate in the race who has explicitly rejected any corporate PAC contributions. Like Katie and Barbara, he was early on raising the alarm bells on the Climate Crisis and, again, just like Katie and Barbara, has been an advocate for universal healthcare.

Yesterday David Siders talked about what the label “progressive” means electorally in California and specifically in this race. Katie told him, that it doesn’t mean much… “It’s not about a label. It’s about being able to talk to people about who you fight for … I think the label’s actually part of the problem.”

California “is a beachhead for the progressive movement,” Joseph Geevarghese, executive director of the Bernie Sanders-aligned advocacy group Our Revolution, told me. In a state that is such a “major player,” he added, the next senator should carry “a powerful progressive voice.”
But in the Senate primary, the earliest stages of the race have laid bare a more existential question for the progressive movement— less a matter of left versus center, as it was in the 2020 presidential primary, but a skirmish over who even qualifies as a progressive, and how salient that designation still is.
As a whole, the party has shifted further to the left than ever. Some traditionally progressive ideas— including a $15 minimum wage and tenets of the Green New Deal— are now mainstream. The proportion of Democrats who identify as “liberal,” as opposed to “moderate” or “conservative,” according to Gallup, now exceeds 50 percent— an all-time high.
“That’s the real dilemma or question mark for those of us in the progressive movement,” said Mark Longabaugh, an ad maker who worked on Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “Yeah, we’ve had a huge impact on the party’s positioning on policy issues, which is ultimately what we all care about. But at the same time, clearly, liberals, outside of a handful of recent victories, still don’t have the upper hand inside the party. Nor have we seized the big victories that it would take to implement those policies in some ways.”
If the 2020 presidential election was a setback for progressives, with Joe Biden defeating the likes of Sanders and Warren in the Democratic primary, three years later the movement may be suffering from something else entirely-- the sheer number of Democrats claiming to represent the brand.
“Progressive,” said Lily Geismer, a history professor at California’s Claremont McKenna College who studies liberalism and the Democratic Party, has become a “catch-all,” used so heavily that in some ways “that term has lost its meaning.”
…[Porter] told me that while she identifies as a progressive, most voters “don’t identify that way. Within the party, yes, but that’s not the electorate. So, you’re not going to connect with the electorate by saying, ‘I’m this.’”
Independents, she said, are a rapidly growing segment of the electorate for a reason. “Democrat and Republican are way better-defined terms than progressive or moderate or centrist or liberal or whatever these other terms are, and even those terms are kind of losing some of their purchase for people.” What’s they’re looking at, she added, is “what people are voting on, in a way that I think makes the label sometimes less important to people than what you’re doing.”
If Porter is right about how voters feel about terms like “progressive,” you wouldn’t know it from the way the California Senate race is unfolding.
One of Porter’s top rivals, Rep. Adam Schiff, a former prosecutor and former member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, withdrew his application to join the Congressional Progressive Caucus last month, after progressives raised question about its timing and his credentials. Schiff now supports such progressive policies as the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and he has said, “I very much view myself as a progressive.” But next to Porter and the other main Democrat in the race, Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive icon who cast the lone vote against the war in Afghanistan, Schiff might as well be Biden.
…Amar Shergill, chair of the California Democratic Party’s progressive caucus, told me that while Schiff “has been great on some issues … he routinely arrives late.”
“There’s a huge difference between being an advocate for progressive issues,” he said, “and being the last vote on a progressive issue.”
This opinion of Schiff isn’t unusual among progressive activists. When we spoke recently, Geevarghese shared with me the results of an internal, late-February survey of about 5,000 Our Revolution members in California. Porter and Lee, who was endorsed recently by progressive Rep. Ro Khanna, did about equally well, drawing 45 percent and 44 percent support, respectively. Schiff, among the Our Revolution membership, was running more than 25 percentage points behind.
It was only a survey of activists. But among them, the term “progressive” still carries significant weight, which was clear at Lee’s event in Orange County and in her campaign’s announcement that Khanna was supporting her: Khanna, a co-chair of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, called Lee “the progressive leader Californians need right now,” while highlighting the lack of representation of Black women like Lee in the Senate.
Lee, in turn, promised “to always stand up for our progressive values.”
For progressives, Lee told me when we spoke on the phone, “the stakes are high.”
“When you look at what progressives stand for— universal affordable healthcare for all, decent housing, making sure poverty is eliminated, fighting for food security, making sure we fight to protect our democracy,” she said, “not only are these progressive values, these are values that most Americans embrace.”
In heavily Democratic California’s top-two primary, it’s highly likely that, barring an entry from a credible Republican, two Democrats will advance to a general election runoff— likely between Schiff and either Porter or Lee. Schiff has been endorsed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and is widely expected to win Feinstein’s backing.
…[F]or as completely as the Donald Trump era overhauled the Republican Party, the resistance to Trump from the left blurred some intraparty differences between Democrats. Schiff is known less as a moderate or a progressive than for his roles in Trump’s first impeachment and in the panel investigating the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In some ways, said Geevarghese, “’progressive’ and ‘Democrat’ have gotten conflated, in part because the anti-Trump movement was galvanizing, and no matter which side of the Democratic divide you’re on, establishment versus progressive, we came together against the threat of Trump-ism.”
Schiff, said Konstantine Anthony, the mayor of Burbank, Schiff’s hometown, “was on television every night for weeks, months. He was seen as the anti-Trump.”
Anthony, a socialist who is far to the left of Schiff ideologically and actually supports the “defund the police” movement, is nevertheless endorsing him. [He also endorsed Maebe A Girl to win Schiff;s congressional seat.] Citing Schiff’s support for Medicare for All and his swearing off of corporate PAC donations, among other policies, he said he regrets that among that activist class, “we do not allow people to learn.”
Schiff, he said, had become more progressive as his district evolved, while “our memories have gotten longer, and I feel like it’s to our detriment. We haven’t evolved to the point where we can forgive people.”
But the broader electorate may be more willing to overlook things— if they even cared much to begin with.
…[W]hen asked [as part of a Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll] what candidate attributes mattered to them, fewer than half of Democrats and independent voters— 45 percent— listed being a progressive as very important. That’s far more than the 23 percent who list being a moderate as very important. But both responses were nowhere close to the more than two-thirds of Democrats and independents who said it was important that a candidate have a “willingness to negotiate and work collaboratively with others to get things done.”
“Honestly, you could hardly get a piece of paper between Schiff and Porter in terms of ideology,” Garry South, a Democratic strategist who has worked on statewide campaigns in California, told me. “For either of those two candidates to try to make some huge ideological gap between them, I think, will be a futile exercise at the end of the day.”

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