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California voters reflect on Sen. Dianne Feinstein

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For decades, Dianne Feinstein has been one of the most popular politicians in California. Now 89 years old and recovering from a bout of shingles, she's facing calls to resign after missing votes in the Senate. Scott Shafer from KQED asked California voters about their senior senator's absence.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: At a children's playground in San Francisco's Mission District, music teacher Thomas Denish takes a break from eating a sandwich to consider Dianne Feinstein's career.

THOMAS DENISH: You know, she's been in the game forever. You have to respect the woman for what she's done.

SHAFER: And what about people who are saying, you know what; you need to resign because you can't go back there and vote right now?

DENISH: I think that decision is up to her and her people and her team.

SHAFER: On 24th Street, in the heart of the city's Latin cultural district, Edith Reyes notes the high stakes in Washington right now. She's voted for Feinstein before and thinks she's done an adequate job. But...

EDITH REYES: There's a time for a change, and this may be it for Dianne Feinstein to step down and allow somebody else to take her place.

SHAFER: Down the street, Andre Barnes says he's lived in the city a long time, but it's been years since he's even thought about Dianne Feinstein.

ANDRE BARNES: Like, when Willie Brown was, like, a state legislator, you kind of understood what he was doing. He raised money. He got things done. Feinstein - I just don't have a clue. She should go enjoy her life. She's old.

SHAFER: Barnes likes Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who could fit the bill if Governor Gavin Newsom fulfills his pledge to name a Black woman to the seat. But if you're a Republican in deep blue California, like Gloria Ludtke of La Quinta near Palm Springs, the problem is much bigger than Feinstein's age.

GLORIA LUDTKE: The politics that they have in California suck.

SHAFER: While Feinstein fell out of favor with many progressive Democrats for being too moderate, to Ludtke, she's too liberal.

LUDTKE: I really don't think much of her. She doesn't do her job. She's just one-sided.

SHAFER: Republican Jeff Lao says he thinks there are good reasons for Feinstein to retire.

JEFF LAO: Harder to make decisions when you're getting older. And it's good to move on to another position (laughter).

SHAFER: On a recent morning at the Rossmoor retirement community in Walnut Creek east of Oakland, seniors were playing a vigorous game of pickleball.

(SOUNDBITE OF PICKLEBALL BOUNCING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Whoa. Wow.

SHAFER: Inside a nearby clubhouse, three members of the Rossmoor Democratic club mulled over the Feinstein dilemma. At 91, Joyce Brock is older than Feinstein, but she rejects the idea that Feinstein is being treated unfairly or that there's a double standard for older women.

JOYCE BROCK: I don't think this has to do with gender. Because of my age, I know myself that I'm not as good as I was when I was 85.

SHAFER: Her friend Alice Claire King, a relatively young 79, notes that the nearly 40 million people in California need a reliable voice in Washington.

ALICE CLAIRE KING: As the biggest state in the country with only two senators, we need her vote. We need a senator who is at full speed and can give his or her all.

AMAL MOULIK: It's a balance between the agility of youth and the experience of age.

SHAFER: That's Amal Moulik. Calling on his Indian heritage, he has a nuanced take on Feinstein's age.

MOULIK: In the Asian culture, age is regarded as a very great value.

SHAFER: Moulik seems resigned to the fact that ultimately Feinstein may have to step down, giving Governor Newsom an opportunity to name the next senator. But...

MOULIK: Let us be clear on this. There will be no voice like Dianne Feinstein. Whoever he appoints will have very large shoes to fill.

SHAFER: Meanwhile, Feinstein's staff says she'll be back in Washington once her health allows her to travel. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scot Shafer