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Joe Mathews

Sen. Feinstein, Justice Breyer Hold California Hostage by Not Retiring



An illustration named the "San Francisco Gothic" depicts U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. (Be Boggs)
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San Francisco stubbornness is holding the republic hostage.

The hostage takers — U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer — are past retirement age, but refuse to quit their jobs now, when they could be replaced by allies. Their stubborn insistence on retaining power could elevate right-wing political forces hostile to California and democracy itself.

If Gov. Gavin Newsom is recalled and the 88-year-old Feinstein dies or retires during a Larry Elder governorship, Feinstein would be replaced by a Republican, flipping the U.S. Senate back to the California-hating GOP.  The 83-year-old Breyer, by not retiring while a Democratic Senate could confirm a like-minded replacement, risks having his seat go to another right-wing justice.

Feinstein and Breyer Share Old Age and Hometown of SF

portrait of columnist Joe Mathews

Joe Mathews


Why do Feinstein and Breyer cling to power, despite the risks? Conventional wisdom chalks their stubbornness up to age. But the real source of their political pig-headedness is their shared hometown, San Francisco.

Is there any human settlement more stubborn than San Francisco? Even in California, where going your own way is the leading religion, San Francisco proudly defies conformity and good sense with politics and ideas that leave us scratching our heads. “Forty-nine square miles, surrounded by reality,” is how native son Paul Kantner, of Jefferson Airplane, fondly described his hometown.

Of course, San Francisco owes its existence to stubbornness—rebuilding itself after the 1906 earthquake. While other Californians are routinely warmed by the sun, San Franciscans, isolated on a cold peninsula, must rely on their inner fire. And you need stubborn resourcefulness to afford San Francisco rent these days.

So, how can we expect Feinstein or Breyer to know when to quit when they are from a place where just getting around town means there’s always another hill—Telegraph, Nob, Russian—to climb?

‘San Francisco Stubbornness’

The senator and the justice come by their San Francisco stubbornness honestly. Feinstein was hardened first by demanding nuns at Convent of the Sacred Heart High School—and then, as supervisor and mayor, by the city’s brutal politics. Breyer learned politics through his father—the board of education’s legal counsel—and as a debater at Lowell High. Both Feinstein and Breyer stayed close—Stanford—for college.

Feinstein and Breyer also embody the local combination of privilege and self-righteousness that can make their hometown so infuriating. They also portray themselves as independent-minded figures, even though such independence is stubbornly out of step with the times. Such an outdate outlooks is itself very San Francisco.

“People don’t grow up, they grow old,” the late, great San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote. “One fateful way to counteract that is to live in the past, the occupational hazard of San Franciscans.”

Several Key Politicians Nurtured by San Francisco

Caen’s old warning points to a current irony: defiance of reality has never been more popular across the United States. So, is it any wonder—in our polarized and angry age—that the rest of the country has come to prize the brand of stubbornness nurtured by San Francisco? Americans elevated the most stubborn California politician of the younger generation, former San Francisco DA Kamala Harris, to the vice presidency, backing up a 78-year-old president. Proudly obstinate San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi, 81, is considered an indispensable House Speaker.

In the past decade, Californians, improbably, reinstalled that stubborn old coot Jerry Brown in the governorship, and they made former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, running on a platform of resistance to national political norms, Brown’s successor. Newsom is now trying to defeat a recall with a stubborn strategy of denying voters a Democratic alternative to his rule.

A San Franciscan, State Senator Scott Wiener, has become prominent statewide by stubbornly pursuing housing construction that the rest of California loathes. At age 87, Willie Brown, still behaves as if he is his city’s mayor—17 years after he left office.

Recall is a Manifestion of Californians Frustrations with SF Politicians

The attempt to recall Newsom is mostly grounded in misinformation and right-wing fantasy, but it does respond to a very real California frustration with the San Francisco political machine and its stubborn self-regard, even as the state is consumed by multiple crises.

I recently called my favorite San Francisco pol, Quentin Kopp, an ex-judge and legislator who even San Franciscans consider too stubborn. Kopp, 93, still swims and goes to his law office every day. He isn’t retiring (we also discussed his longtime devotion to high-speed rail), and says that demands that Breyer and Feinstein quit because of age are “insulting and regressive.”

So, if you’re waiting for stubborn San Franciscans to step down, don’t hold your breath.

About the Author

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.