By Larry Baskett
On February 6, 2019, Indivisible East Bay braved the rain to attend our first meeting with Senator Dianne Feinstein’s state director, Jim Lazarus, who is newly in the role but has worked for Feinstein on and off ever since she was mayor of San Francisco (his most recent job was for the SF Chamber of Commerce). Field Representative Abby Ellis, who has met with us before, joined in.
We led with an ask to stop Trump’s expanded plans for nuclear weapons development (including low-yield nukes) and space-based missile defense (“space wall,” i.e. Reagan’s “Star Wars” redux). The new nuclear arms race is bad news even before one considers who’s in charge. There weren’t ideas on how to stop withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. When we asked for Sen. Feinstein to use her position on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee to work on the issue with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, as well as whether Feinstein was committed to a long-term goal of the elimination of nuclear weapons, Lazarus said they would check with the DC office. On the no-nukes goal, we recommended contacting former Clinton Defense Secretary William Perry.
On Trump’s racist southern border policies, we asked for Feinstein to follow up on her efforts to legislate restrictions on Trump using funds via “emergency declaration.” For instance, she could work with ranking Senate Department of Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Member John Tester to strip out language that would allow it. Lazarus and Ellis said they’d follow up. They said that the federal bureaucracy is pretty independent and that city bureaucracies seem more responsive on the matter. Lazarus also said when Feinstein’s staff visited the San Diego youth immigrant facility (ahem, prison), the conditions were better than one might expect from reporting elsewhere… which was good to hear, but not very reassuring, seeing as how the whole system is a gross injustice. We asked for Feinstein to visit personally, as she has previously committed to doing.
Also, we asked Feinstein to cosponsor the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2018, S.2522. Currently foreign adoptees with American parents, children who would have qualified for citizenship but who for whatever reason didn’t go through the regular process, don’t have a formal recourse to become citizens. This issue personally impacts a loved one of one of our members.
Regarding the rapid pace of confirmations of conservative hack judges and Sen. Mitch McConnell’s plan to accelerate them, we asked for more outspoken protest and procedural hardball from Feinstein, citing Sen. Mazie Hirono’s close questioning and consistent “nay” votes and Sen. Harris’ recent commitment to vote NO on all judges in protest.
We also asked for opposition to attorney general appointee William Barr, noting that a president under investigation shouldn’t get his own pick of AG. We didn’t get much of a response on this; Feinstein did subsequently vote against Barr.
We brought up ever-rising health care costs, including the recent SF General Hospital scandal about soaking non-Medicare patients. We asked Feinstein to support a bill to outlaw “surprise medical billing” with a policy that would put the onus on providers to work out billing with insurers rather than with patients.
We also asked for support of single-payer insurance (Medicare for All). Ellis said that Feinstein supports a public option and broadening California Access Care; she also asked how we’d fund single-payer. Lazarus pointed out that other countries with public systems started them a long time ago and that even Medicare today takes private supplemental insurance for better coverage. This was not encouraging.
We discussed the idea of public banking to fund Green New Deal programs and tied it into developing efforts with Public Bank East Bay and the California Public Banking Alliance. Lazarus said he’d look into it and mentioned the possibility of a statewide public bank as well as banking services for the now-legalized marijuana industry.
We asked whether Feinstein was open to following Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s lead on a 70% or higher top marginal tax rate and/or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s lead on a wealth tax, for economic justice and fairness. Lazarus didn’t know Feinstein’s position. He brought up how the Constitution was amended to authorize an income tax, and while he cast doubt upon a federal wealth tax’s constitutionality, he noted that many states do have an asset tax, in the form of a property tax. He was also concerned about wealth flight overseas. Again, the direction of the conversation wasn’t very encouraging.
Feinstein has found an as-yet-not-public cosponsor for her homelessness relief bill. It would involve grants via the Health and Human Services Administration to fund a variety of nonprofits and local agencies in support of housing for the poor. The emphasis would be on the states most impacted, like California, New York, and Florida.
Finally, we asked for a public town hall meeting with the Senator. Lazarus wasn’t sure and said that it depended upon the Senate’s schedule, with the likeliest time being during an August recess. Next time, hopefully we can get more specificity from Lazarus on Feinstein’s public positions and responses to our requests.
Larry Baskett is a mechanical engineer from Berkeley who spent a year on staff at the California State Senate and who previously volunteered with Wolf PAC, the campaign finance reform organization.