Feinstein Faces Growing Scrutiny, but Voters Are Still Divided on Her Fitness
On her way to get married inside San Francisco’s City Hall, Megan Kracalik Bayar walked past a bronze statue of Senator Dianne Feinstein that honored her years as the city’s mayor.
Ms. Bayar had heard on the radio that Ms. Feinstein, a Democratic eminence in California politics for decades, had suffered from brain swelling and was increasingly frail, forgetful and impaired.
“I didn’t realize she was so unwell,” Ms. Bayar said, minutes before posing for her wedding photos in the cavernous rotunda. “I feel sorry for her.”
But she was not ready to pass judgment on whether Ms. Feinstein, 89, should step down. “I haven’t reached a conclusion,” she said.
Voters interviewed in California on Thursday had mixed views on the meaning and consequences of fresh and troubling revelations about Ms. Feinstein’s condition. But they did not seem to share the sense of urgency expressed by some of the state’s political players, the politicians, donors and activists who were distressed over the possibility that Ms. Feinstein’s condition would slow the Democrats’ agenda and effectiveness in Washington.
Denise Dixon, a lifelong Democrat who lives in Anaheim, southeast of Los Angeles, said she was still unsure of Ms. Feinstein’s mental capacity and whether the senator was able to carry on with her job.
“As a voter, I’d hope she would be responsible and make the right choice whether to step down now or later,” said Ms. Dixon, who voted for Ms. Feinstein in 2018.
After a New York Times report on Thursday revealed that Ms. Feinstein’s condition had been more severe than her office had previously disclosed, a spokesman confirmed that the senator’s bout with shingles — a virus that had caused vision and balance impairments and partial paralysis in her face — had also brought on encephalitis, a rare but potentially debilitating swelling of the brain. Ms. Feinstein returned to the Capitol last week after missing more than two months because of her illness.
The revelation has amplified calls for Ms. Feinstein’s resignation, especially among the most politically engaged. She has already announced that she will retire when her sixth term ends in January 2025, but there are growing doubts that she can fulfill her duties until then.
“She’s not able to do everything, do all the things that she’d like to do — she just doesn’t have the energy,” said Tanya Berger, 72, a retired real estate agent and a Democrat, who was strolling through the city of Orange on Thursday afternoon with her friend and bridge partner after an Italian lunch. “It is time. We just need some new blood. We just need some people that are more in tune with the times.”
Ms. Feinstein has been such a fixture of California Democratic politics — she was first elected to the Senate more than three decades ago — that her presence and her continued political victories have been taken for granted by many voters.
Jeremy Levine, a Democrat who works at a housing policy nonprofit organization and lives in Oakland, across the bay from San Francisco, did not bother to vote for Ms. Feinstein in 2018 because he was so confident she would win. Now he thinks she should resign if she cannot carry out the most fundamental parts of a senator’s job: voting on bills and the confirmation of judges.
“Feinstein has been an amazing senator for California for a long time — long before I was alive, she was leading the charge,” he said. “I’m not going to criticize her values. It’s just, like, can she do the job?”
The bust of Ms. Feinstein in San Francisco City Hall has her long political career etched in stone: Member of the city’s Board of Supervisors from 1970 to 1978. Mayor from 1978 until 1988. Her latest chapter still awaits a final engraving: United States Senator: “1992 — ”
She broke barriers as the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco and, later, the first woman to serve as a senator from California, sworn in two months ahead of Senator Barbara Boxer. She was praised for the poise she displayed as she took charge of the city when its mayor, George Moscone, and a supervisor, Harvey Milk, were assassinated at City Hall in 1978.
But the importance of that history is increasingly lost among younger residents, even in the very space where it occurred.
Late on Thursday afternoon, Ryan Nichols, a process server, hurried into the mayor’s office with a stack of documents. Mr. Nichols, 29, said he pays more attention to politics than most of his friends. A registered Republican who considers himself a libertarian, he said he despairs at the poverty he sees on the streets around City Hall and feels that California is “going downhill.”
On his way out the door, he glanced at the bronze rendering of Ms. Feinstein, who was elected to the Senate before he was born. When a reporter told him the statue was of Dianne Feinstein, he headed for the elevator. “I don’t know who that is,” he said.
Vik Jolly reported from Orange, Calif., Sergio Olmos reported from Los Angeles, and Evan Peng reported from Palo Alto, Calif.