In the midst of the mean, nasty and sky-is-falling political conversation nationally, Dianne Feinstein, California's senior U.S. senator, gave a speech in Modesto on Wednesday that was refreshingly devoid of hyperbole and name-calling.
Using low-key terms such as "problem" and "big problem," she outlined where the federal government spends its money and why the deficit is growing. She also responded quickly and openly to questions on subjects ranging from college costs to ethanol to poverty to the recent attack on Sikhs at a temple in Wisconsin.
It was an analytical and effective talk, the kind that demonstrates why the moderate Feinstein has a lot of support from agriculture and business leaders even though she is a Democrat. The audience at the DoubleTree Hotel was decidedly mixed, in age and political persuasion. We applaud the Modesto Chamber of Commerce for pulling it together on short notice.
Feinstein, who has been in the Senate since 1993 and is seeking a new six-year term, has a long-term perspective that stretches to the era when senators were more amenable to conversation and compromise. Some of them still are, and Feinstein said that critical issues will be addressed — after the Nov. 6 election and after the lame duck period that follows.
Feinstein covered topics of high interest to her audience: The economy, the federal budget, the safety of the country and water. Here was a comment typical of her tone and topic: "I am of the opinion, the strong opinion, that California has insufficient water storage."
The state has not added significant water storage facilities in spite of a growing population and of the impact of global warming and climate change. Feinstein criticized the state Legislature for pulling from the November ballot a bond measure that would help pay for more storage. She urged legislators to get a bond on a future ballot of less than $10 billion.
As for our local controversy over the proposed sale of Modesto Irrigation District water to San Francisco, Feinstein made it clear that she's not involved in those negotiations, stating flatly, "I have nothing to do with that." Carmen Sabatino later accused her of being involved in the MID-San Francisco negotiations and she deftly cut him off with the comment that she would not weigh in because "it does not relate to my federal responsibilities."
Some water sale opponents are determined to tie the senator to what they see as a conspiracy. Feinstein has shown a lot of interest in water debates over the years, but also has consistently focused on federal issues — there are enough of those — and not gotten mired in local disputes. Why would she, given all the other subjects with which she has to deal?
The senator's speech was authoritative but not splashy, what we would expect from a politician with decades in office. As the congressmen from our region have, she spoke with frustration about the high foreclosure rates in many California cities — six in the top 10 nationally — and about the lack of help reaching many underwater homeowners. She said she has sent 50 letters to bank CEOs on behalf of constituents with compelling stories — and not gotten a single reply, in spite of her office.
Feinstein mostly stayed clear of partisan politics until she was asked whether there was any way to get rid of the animosity in Washington, D.C. Citing relationships of "great faith and trust" with some of her Republican colleagues, Feinstein put much of the blame for the rancor on the tea party "that doesn't care if government shuts down. I care if the government shuts down," she said.
Modesto seldom sees either of California's U.S. senators, and when we do, it's usually for a ribbon-cutting or a campaign appearance. Feinstein's speech was welcome and educational.