With Feinstein’s retirement, Adam Schiff seeks to carry the torch of Jewish values

“Her Jewish values are ones that I deeply share,” Schiff told JI shortly after Sen. Dianne Feinstein had revealed she would not seek reelection

With the long-awaited announcement of her retirement earlier this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), 89, marked the official conclusion of a historic era of Jewish representation in California.

It wasn’t so long ago that the country’s most populous state had two Jewish senators, Feinstein and former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who stepped down in 2017. The Democratic duo had served together for almost a quarter of a century.

But as that period now comes to a close, the lone Jewish Democrat vying to claim Feinstein’s seat, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), sees a chance for some continuity after Feinstein, the longest-serving senator from California, leaves office at the end of her fifth and current term in 2024.

“Her Jewish values are ones that I deeply share,” Schiff, 62, told Jewish Insider on Tuesday, shortly after Feinstein had revealed she would not seek reelection. “One of the passages that I use to guide my life and my politics comes out of Micah: ‘What is required of us but to do justice, to love mercy and walk humbly with thy God.’ This is what Sen. Feinstein has done.”

“She was a trailblazer,” he added, citing her past activism on gay rights and gun control, among other issues. “Is a trailblazer.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) at his barmitzvah

The 11-term congressman, a former state senator who represents a Los Angeles-area House district, launched his first bid for the upper chamber in late January, weeks before Feinstein went public with her plans. He emphasized at the time of his announcement that he had sought her blessing in advance, even as she had been widely expected to retire.

His competitor, Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), a Democrat from Orange County, became the first challenger to enter the race last month, adding early pressure on Feinstein, who in recent years has faced mounting scrutiny over her mental acuity and fitness to serve.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday, Porter, 49, thanked Feinstein “for her leadership” and said she “has had a remarkable career” as a former mayor of San Francisco who would later become the first Jewish woman sworn into the U.S. Senate. “She created a path for women in politics that I am proud to follow.”

The field is almost certain to grow in the coming days as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a veteran Bay Area congressman, filed paperwork on Wednesday to run for the seat. The 76-year-old Democrat, who would be the first Black woman to join the primary, intends to formally announce her campaign before the end of the month, according to a spokesperson.

Speaking with JI, Schiff, a prolific fundraiser who rose to national prominence as the manager of former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, expressed confidence about his position in the race, which is shaping up to be among the most hotly contested of the next election cycle. 

“I think I have the strongest track record of actually making progress on issues that people care about: championing democracy, fighting for an economy that works for everyone, bringing back resources to my home state of California,” he explained. “It sets me apart.”

Earlier this month, Schiff, until recently the chairman of the powerful House Intelligence Committee, notched a conditional endorsement from Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), who said she would back him if Feinstein chose not to run. “In his service in the House,” the former House speaker said, “he has focused on strengthening our Democracy with justice and on building an economy that works for all.”

A spokesperson for Pelosi’s office confirmed in an email to JI that her endorsement is now operational but said there is “nothing new” to add “at the moment.”

In addition to Pelosi, several members of California’s Democratic congressional delegation, including Reps. Mike Levin, Ted Lieu and Eric Swalwell, have lined up behind Schiff’s campaign.  

Feinstein’s office did not respond to a request for comment about whom, if anyone, she intends to support.

Owing to California’s partisan makeup, the seat is expected to remain in Democratic hands. But the primary results could point more broadly to prevailing voter sentiment as the party seeks to defend its slim Senate majority in a number of consequential matchups across the country.

Among the three candidates who are poised to compete in the race, Porter and Lee are seen as progressive standard bearers, with Schiff, an establishment Democrat, claiming the moderate mantle, if not always in substance than at least in style.

The congressman, however, suggested that such distinctions may be reductive. “We’re all progressives,” he insisted to JI, before adding a semantic distinction. “The reason why I think Speaker Pelosi endorsed me, and so many California House colleagues have, is that they have confidence in my ability to represent well the constituents up and down the state of California and to deliver results, to deliver progress,” he explained. “This is what they’re counting on me to do.”

In recent weeks, Schiff, who is affiliated with the centrist New Democrats Coalition, has indicated that he is now seeking to join the Progressive Caucus, where Porter and Lee are currently members. The effort, he claimed, has been in the works for a while. “I had talked to the leadership of the caucus about doing it last session,” he said. But the Trump impeachment and his subsequent role investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, he explained, “absorbed most of my time.”

“I look forward to joining the Progressive Caucus,” he told JI. “I think my voting record is very consistent with the caucus.”

A spokesperson for the caucus declined to comment on Schiff’s status as a prospective member. 

Porter, for her part, has voiced skepticism of her opponent’s move. “I am a member of the Progressive Caucus,” she told a reporter last month, before bluntly adding: “He is not.”

Notwithstanding such tensions, Schiff’s supporters maintain that his background and profile have drawn interest from a diversity of voters. “He strikes me as somebody who’s got really broad appeal to Democrats across the party,” Jesse Gabriel, a Democratic state assemblyman in Encino who has endorsed Schiff’s campaign, said in a recent interview with JI. The congressman, Gabriel argued, “has been a fighter” on key issues of importance to several constituencies.

During a meeting in Sacramento on Tuesday, Schiff found a largely receptive audience while meeting with state lawmakers of varying Democratic persuasions, according to Gabriel, who helped organize the event.

The assemblyman expects that Schiff will receive “broad support” from California’s Legislative Jewish Caucus, which Gabriel chairs, in addition to the wider Jewish community, which represents an estimated population of nearly 700,000 Jewish adults, the majority of whom identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, according to the American Jewish Population Project.

Schiff, who details his family’s Jewish-immigrant roots in his memoir, Midnight in Washington, published in 2021, “has a very strong base in the Jewish community,” said Raphael Sonenshein, the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

As if to underscore that point, Gabriel said he had recently been amused to learn that Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue in the Bay Area town of Lafayette founded by his grandparents, had served as the location for Schiff’s bar mitzvah 50 years ago. “It was a nice little touchpoint,” Gabriel said.

“I’m very proud of the support I have from a lot of Jewish leadership up and down the state,” said Schiff, who notched an endorsement this week from Darrell Steinberg, the Jewish mayor of Sacramento. “I think the work that I’m doing to combat antisemitism, to hold to account social media platforms, like Twitter, that have seen an explosion of bigotry and hate, is really important to the Jewish community — and to, really, all Americans.”

Schiff, a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has long been viewed as a staunch supporter of Israel who is well-versed on Middle East policy. Previously, he has won backing from a range of pro-Israel groups, including Democratic Majority for Israel, J Street, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and AIPAC.

At this juncture, it remains to be seen if those groups, and perhaps others, will jump into next year’s open primary, where the top two vote-getters, who are both likely to be Democrats, will advance to the general election.

Rachel Rosen, a spokesperson for DMFI’s political arm, which has backed Schiff and Porter in past elections, had no updates to share on Wednesday. “We are watching the Senate race closely,” she told JI via email.

In a statement to JI earlier this week, Tali Degroot, J Street’s national political director, said the group is “excited to see that at the moment, all of the main contenders” are, like Feinstein, “currently JStreetPAC endorsees,” including Lee. “Of course there’s a long way to go until 2024, and we look forward to meeting with all of the candidates in this race in the weeks ahead.”

Notably, Feinstein first accepted J Street’s endorsement in 2012, lending some early credibility to the fledgling liberal advocacy group, which had launched five years earlier. More recently, J Street has sought to position itself as a left-wing foil to the bipartisan AIPAC.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) speaks with reporters after closing remarks during the fifth hearing on the January 6th investigation in the Cannon House Office Building on June 23, 2022 in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

While she is viewed as a solid pro-Israel voice in the Senate, Feinstein has not shied away from expressing criticism of Israeli policies and leadership over the course of her long tenure.

With well over a year until the election, Schiff believes “it is too early to know what role the different pro-Israel organizations will play in the race.” He emphasized, however, that he has long had a positive relationship with such groups. “I think organizations across the spectrum recognize the work that I have done to improve the U.S.-Israel relationship,” he told JI, “and appreciate the strength of my voice” and “the breadth of knowledge I bring to working on these issues.”

For her part, Porter has largely pursued a mainstream Democratic lane on Israel, even if she is more widely recognized for her combative approach to congressional hearings, where her prop-laden interrogations have frequently gone viral.

Lee’s Middle East policy positions, on the other hand, have often run to the left of the the pro-Israel consensus. During her tenure, for instance, the congresswoman, an anti-war icon who assumed office in 1998, has signed on to legislation that would place restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel and was among a small group of House members who voted against a resolution condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, among other things.

Still, Jewish voters who live in her district, which includes Oakland and Berkeley, stressed in recent interviews with JI that Lee has always maintained close and courteous relationships with the Jewish and pro-Israel community. “She sees herself as being pro-Israel,” said Moses Libitzky, a Jewish activist who has engaged with Lee on issues relating to Israel. “What that looks like from my perspective and her perspective might be a bit different. But she’s very willing to talk about it, and I respect that.”

Last February, Lee and Schiff were both among a select group of House members who accompanied Pelosi on a high-profile national security delegation to Israel as well as Germany and London. 

In the interview with JI, Schiff said he has no immediate plans to visit Israel as he embarks on his campaign. In recent years, the congressman said, he had traveled to the region while serving as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a position he no longer holds with Republicans now in the majority. Late last month, Schiff was ejected from the body altogether by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in a belated act of retribution for past Democratic votes to expel controversial GOP members from their committees.

“Now that I have been removed from that committee by Mr. McCarthy, I won’t be traveling under those auspices,” he said of his trips to the Middle East. “But I want to continue to be deeply engaged on issues affecting Israel.”

Recently, he has joined a growing number of Democratic colleagues who, by varying degrees, have raised alarms over Israel’s new governing coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Since he assumed office in late December, the longtime Israeli leader has drawn scrutiny for partnering with controversial far-right figures who have promoted an overhaul of the judicial system that critics have derided as anti-democratic, among other things.

“I am deeply concerned about the composition of this new governing coalition and the participation of some of the more extreme voices within Israeli politics,” Schiff said. “I want to do everything I can to support strengthening our democracy at home and make sure that our allies around the world continue to further their own democracies.”

Despite his unease with the direction of Netanyahu’s government, the congressman said the U.S. and Israel will have no trouble finding common cause.

“The American people, I think, share a great many of the same values with the citizens of Israel — a love of democracy, a cherishing of the rights and freedoms of the individual,” he said. “The United States and Israel need to continue working together in our mutual national security interests but also to further our shared values.”  

He expressed optimism, meanwhile, that Israel will eventually overcome its internal divisions. “Israel is going through a difficult time,” Schiff reasoned, “just as we went through a difficult time during the last administration.”

To help smooth tensions, Schiff said the U.S. can, among other things, “continue to encourage other countries in the region” to normalize relations with Israel through the Abraham Accords. He also underscored his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as he acknowledged that the prospects for negotiations may seem distant. 

“I more than understand the pessimism because it seems like we have moved farther away from that solution in the last several years than closer to it,” he said. “I just don’t see an alternative.”

In keeping with Feinstein, a longtime supporter of the two-state solution who has also warned of its imperilment, the congressman suggested that he would not avoid tough conversations on such issues if he is elected to the Senate. “I would love to carry on her legacy in any way I can,” he told JI, “because I think we share very much the same values and the same ideals of public service.”

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