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Kevin de León, the Democratic leader of the California state senate, lost two key consultants after launching his bid to challenge a sitting five-term senator — departures his camp cast as unexpected and a reflection of a powerful political class that doesn’t “want to see Kevin de Leon succeed in this race.”
The two former de León officials, his longtime election lawyer Stephen Kaufman and his fundraiser Stephanie Daily Smith, do not work for the incumbent candidate, Dianne Feinstein.
But both work for leading California Democrats who support the 84-year-old senator, including California secretary of state Alex Padilla, U.S. senator Kamala Harris, and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti.
Kaufman, a prominent campaign lawyer in the state, had worked for de Leon for almost a decade, from late 2008 to July 2017, according to financial disclosures for the state senator's ballot measures and campaign accounts, including the one that immediately preceded the 2018 race. Daily Smith, a former fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, also worked for de Leon from January to July of this year, filings show.
Both have left de León’s team since the primary challenge, a campaign spokesman, Roger Salazar, confirmed.
Kaufman and Daily Smith declined to comment.
In California Democratic politics, where a regular cast of elected officials share an overlapping network of in-state consultants and political consulting firms, conflicts and allegiances often tangle statewide elections. But with de León’s decision to challenge Feinstein, a state party mainstay and one of the longest-serving U.S. senators, that complicated web runs deep, if not directly.
Kaufman and Daily Smith both work for Padilla, Harris, and Garcetti, who are supporters of Feinstein. Garcetti shares the same longtime chief strategist, the veteran operative Bill Carrick, as Feinstein. And Padilla and Harris both use SCN Strategies, the same leading consulting firm that is now running a pro-Feinstein super PAC, Fight for California, which launched within hours of a competing pro-de Leon super PAC.
“It doesn’t surprise us that there are powerful people who don’t want Kevin de León to succeed in this race,” said Salazar, the de León spokesman. “He’s been told to wait his turn. It’s part of that mentality of folks who like things the way they are.”
Spokespeople for Garcetti, Harris, and Padilla declined to comment.
The shuffle did come as something of a surprise to the de León campaign, particularly in the case of Kaufman, who had done yearly work for the 50-year-old state senate leader on campaigns and ballot initiatives since he served in the state assembly, de León aides said.
It’s “not unusual” for consultants or vendors to be “conflicted out,” said Salazar. Here, though, with no direct conflict to Feinstein, “the tone of it is a little unusual,” he said. “But like I said, it's something we were expected based on whenever you challenge an institution of power.”
De León, who is still assembling his campaign team two weeks after jumping in the race, has already brought on a number of national, Washington-based operatives. In California, where left-leaning activists reportedly encouraged him to challenge Feinstein, he may find it more difficult to hire tied up in-state operatives.
The race has already been cast, in part through the de León campaign's own statements, as a fight between anti-establishment and party forces. Feinstein, who guided the city of San Francisco through the 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and supervisor and LGBT activist Harvey Milk, is seen by some Democrats as a legendary but complex figure in the national party, with positions on foreign policy, privacy, and security that may be generationally out of step with the new influx of progressives. Both de León and Feinstein supported Clinton in the 2016 campaign.
Garcetti, the Los Angeles mayor, dismissed the idea that a Feinstein–de León race reflects an intra-party division. “People will overanalyze it that way,” he said in a interview during the Democratic National Committee meeting last week. “But for the average voter, even the average supporter, that isn’t the prism we use.”
“They were both Clinton supporters. She’s the NRA’s number one enemy, helped repeal DOMA, helped write to torture report. So did she take a vote that also is different from my perspective 20 years ago? I’m sure,” Garcetti said. “Does he take corporate dollars? Of course he does. He was the head of the senate in California.”
“So to that hyper Bernie activist, he or she can probably find something to hate about both of them.”