The Movement At Midterms: Kevin de León

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Background: Kevin de León is a Democratic state senator challenging incumbent US Senator Dianne Feinstein (also a Democrat) in this year’s election for one of two California US Senate seats. Feinstein has represented CA in the US Senate since 1992. De León has served in the state senate since 2010 and served as legislative leader of the CA state senate from 2014 until earlier this year. (In California, it’s possible (and common) for two Democrats to face off in the general election because of their unique “top-two primary system.”)

One recent poll found Feinstein with a 20-point lead and another found just an 8-point lead (though these certainly shouldn’t be read as the effect of just their positioning on climate).

In this blurb, we analyze Kevin de León’s climate credentials based on his campaign so far, his policy views, and his rhetoric (alongside some comparisons to Feinstein). We conclude that overall, he’s a visionary candidate when it comes to climate -- with one main drawback.

Campaign Style: De León has taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge (Feinstein has, too) and has been endorsed by Climate Hawks Vote (Feinstein has not) -- an indicator of his holistic climate credentials.

Policy History and Vision: De León has two climate policy victories on his resume: working to pass legislation to get California to 50% renewable electricity by 2030 (SB 350, 2015) and more recently to 100% by 2045 (SB 100, 2018). While it’s not necessary for candidates, generally, to have experience working to shift government policy justly toward a renewable energy society, de León’s is an excellent indicator of the effort he’s likely to put in, if elected US senator.

It’s a little tougher to figure out where exactly a given candidate prioritizes climate relative to other issues, but de León seems to rate it as highly important. Climate (“Clean Energy Future”) is listed specifically on his “Issues” page of his website. (Feinstein describes a 2007 fuel efficiency bill of hers, but that’s it.) In interviews, he emphasizes it. He has given speeches specifically on climate. His past legislative work and his endorsement by Climate Hawks Vote are also indicators of prioritization. (Feinstein has done some legislative work on emissions but has not become an issue champion.)

On his actual policy vision, he proposes some goals that are beyond a generic “transition to renewables” but not so specific that details couldn’t be negotiated in a legislative process. He wants to aim for a cap on US emissions and 100% renewable consumption by 2045 (just like CA). A vaguer (but also quite ambitious) goal: he wants a “Green New Deal,” which is one useful and necessary way of talking about an energy transition in terms of tangible labor interests. Although, he doesn’t discuss many specifics of what that would look like.

On the supply side of the energy transition, de León does seem to be quieter. Rhetorically, he condemns  “leaving communities of color the doctor’s bills that fossil fuel production always brings”—a signal he’s thinking about disparate constituencies—but he would bring a stronger climate justice policy platform by explicitly calling for government action to limit oil and gas drilling (alongside concern and government support for workers displaced by such policy).

Rhetoric: De León does a great job of talking to multiple constituencies about the transition to more renewable energy production while making climate about more than just the earth (from interview with The Nation): “Everyone wants a high-wage-paying job. Everyone wants the opportunity to provide for their families. To put a roof over their heads, to put clothes on their backs, and food on the table. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re white, Latino, African American, Asian American, or racially mixed. A job, everyone wants a job...I want A New Green Deal era. Like the New Deal with FDR, this is a New Green Deal era.

He also does well to tie climate and renewable energy to an economic growth narrative (from interview with The Nation): “One of my key objectives in California was to reframe the climate-change debate and make it a part of our economic growth plan putting Californians to work. What we have firstly done is delink and decouple carbon from GDP. What that means is that we’re less carbon-intense about the state, our carbon-dioxide emissions are less, as well as criteria for other co-pollutants. Our economy has grown, as a result.”

Third, he rightly names an enemy; referring to CA’s SB 350: “I stared down Big Oil to get it passed.”

Conclusion: Overall, de León prioritizes climate and has a vision for the politics and policy of the issue. The one area he’s lacking is openly describing -- and policy planning for -- how to limit fossil fuel production. Polls do give Feinstein the lead, but with excitement on the left leading up to 2018, de León seems to have a chance.

Sam Zacher is a PhD student in political science at Yale University studying how interest groups can improve their strategies for success on issues like climate change. He tweets @samzacher

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