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Opinion Kevin de León: Meet the ‘unicorn’ who’s taking on Dianne Feinstein

California state Sen. Kevin de León in February. He is running for Democrat Dianne Feinstein’s seat in the U.S. Senate. (Denis Poroy/AP)

“It’s a symbol of this election running against an incumbent who’s been an elected official for half a century.”

The inflatable unicorn stood watch as I interviewed California state Sen. Kevin de León (D) in his spartan U.S. Senate campaign office in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles. As we talked about his foray into politics, his disdain for President Trump and why, despite his respect for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, he believes she needs to make way for a new generation, the rainbow-colored sentinel floated quietly over de León’s shoulder, with an eye on us and looking out the window on California.

“As the youngest child of a single immigrant mother with a third-grade education,” de León told me during the latest episode of “Cape Up.” “I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d ever be an elected official.”

De León resigned his leadership position in the state Senate to focus on his run to unseat Feinstein, a fellow Democrat and four-term incumbent. De León’s uphill battle was made a little more difficult on May 4 when former president Barack Obama endorsed Feinstein. Nevertheless, de León came within six percentage points of winning the Democratic nomination outright at the state Democratic convention in February. The statewide primary is on June 5.

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“I have a lot of respect for Senator Feinstein, and I’m not running against someone, but I’m running to lead,” de León said. “Californians really want a different voice, or at least a contrasting juxtaposition of a different choice on the ballots, and I think that’s good.” One comment that animated de León and restive Democrats was Feinstein’s observation during an Aug. 29 event that Trump could be “a good president” if he demonstrated an “ability to learn, and to change.”

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“That comment hit me hard,” de León explained, “because when you state to the American public that perhaps if we are patient enough, that Donald Trump could be a good president for this country, you ask ‘dreamers’ if they can be patient enough knowing that their status is in limbo. You ask single mothers if they can be patient enough knowing that their children are racially profiled, or they don’t have access to quality education or healthcare. You ask those who’ve been disconnected for so many years by the political powers in Washington, ask them to be patient.

“Well, perhaps we need a different voice, a contrasting voice [in] Washington, because California is not the California it was a quarter of a century ago,” he continued. “When you have a president who mocks our inclusivity, who demonizes our diversity . . . you can’t ask for patience.”

Listen to the podcast to hear de León speak about how his immigrant roots inform his outlook on politics and the promise of America. He talks about his party’s biggest problem on the national stage. “Democrats are very good at governing,” he said. “When it comes to messaging, I’m not too sure about.” For him, the mantra is simple. “Poverty is poverty. At the end of the day, people want a job,” de León explained. And while he believes Trump will fail those who voted for him, he sees it as an opportunity and an imperative for Democrats. “He’s not going to be able to deliver for a Trump supporter who needs the help the most,” said de León. “That’s why we need the unifying coherent message, and the vision, and the policy platform that brings this country together.”

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But back to that unicorn. De León said it symbolizes more than his long-shot bid to unseat Feinstein. It represents the people propelling him forward.

“I think 75 percent are all women on this staff, and many women of color on this staff, and that they drive it. They’re the ones who delivered that 54 percent of the vote, by the way, at the Democratic convention,” de León said. “They’re the ones taking on the establishment. . . . It’s emblematic of all of us who wants an opportunity to succeed, wants a voice that represents us and wants someone who’s going to champion, who’s going to fight. Maybe even not be able to deliver everything that’s measurable, but, you know, at least you have the sense of confidence, ‘He’s fighting for me and he believes in my values and that’s what I want.’ ”

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