SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — California Sen. Kevin de Leon tied U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to Washington dysfunction during a Wednesday event and pledged to "fight like hell" for immigrants and other Californians if elected to replace her, while Feinstein crafted herself as a problem solver and argued resistance is futile with Republicans dominating Washington.
"It's like hitting your head against a concrete wall — you can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night, it doesn't change anything," she said. "What changes things are elections."
The exchange represented the stylistic differences between the two Democrats. De Leon says Feinstein is too passive in today's political climate, while Feinstein argues her experience and steady hand is a boon to California.
But de Leon failed to land a winning moment during the hourlong discussion full of mostly polite disagreements. The two took questions from moderator Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California and engaged little with each other. De Leon hugged Feinstein after, seemingly to her surprise.
He's struggled to gain a foothold against Feinstein, and California Democrats are far more focused on winning U.S. House seats than they are on a safe Senate seat. California's primary system sends the two highest primary vote-getters to the general election regardless of party. She's far ahead of him in name recognition, polling and campaign cash.
Feinstein later told reporters she sees herself "in the center of the political spectrum" and hoped Republicans who didn't plan to vote in the election would change their minds.
But de Leon repeatedly painted California as the breeding ground for progressive policies, noting his own role in authoring a "sanctuary state" law that restricts cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities and a law to move California toward 100 percent clean energy for electricity.
"Because of the lack of action in Washington, I've had to lead in California," he said.
Feinstein largely ignored his criticisms and instead trumpeted her work passing an assault weapons ban, which has since expired, and presented herself as a realist about what's achievable for Democrats. Several times she told him she agreed with his positions, attempting to stifle any room for contrast.
Perhaps his harshest criticism came on immigration. De Leon, the son of a Guatemalan woman who came to the United States illegally, noted that Feinstein voted for homeland security legislation that reconstituted federal migration agencies and created Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal department that detains immigrants living in the country illegally.
Feinstein said comprehensive immigration reform is one of her top priorities. She's introduced legislation to release parents and children together if they are caught at the border.
On health care, De Leon supports a "Medicare for all" plan that would extend the government health plan to all Americans. Feinstein favors a public option but does not support an entirely government-run health care program.
At 85, Feinstein is the oldest U.S. senator, but her age did not come up during the debate. De Leon, 51, did say it's time for a "new way of thinking" in Washington.
Feinstein has not appeared onstage with an opponent since the 2000 election; deLeon sought a more robust debate but agreed to the more tepid moderated conversation.
He treaded carefully around Feinstein's role in the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. He criticized her in September for failing to share allegations by California professor Christine Blasey Ford that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in high school. Ford sent Feinstein a letter detailing the allegations but asked her to keep it confidential.
Feinstein defended her actions and reminded the crowd of her long role in the women's movement.
"I've had a number of women come to me with allegations of sexual impropriety and when they've asked me to keep it confidential I have," she said.
The two agreed that if Democrats take control of the U.S. Senate the allegations against Kavanaugh should be reopened.
Likewise, Feinstein didn't criticize de Leon's handling of sexual misconduct allegations in the California capital. He was a Senate leader when nearly 150 women signed an open letter last year calling out a pervasive culture of harassment. Another senator who had been his roommate resigned after an investigation found he likely behaved inappropriately toward multiple women. De Leon has defended the Legislature's response.
Associated Press writers Jonathan J. Cooper, Sophia Bollag and Don Thompson contributed to this story.