Rep. Adam Schiff has the endorsement of key Democratic Party figures like Nancy Pelosi and more than half of the state’s Democrats in Congress in his run to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein

In an interview for the special program “Inside California Politics: The Race for the Senate,” he says his establishment bona fides do not mean he is the most moderate of the leading candidates.    

“When you look at my voting record and compare it to (Rep. Katie) Porter and (Rep. Barbara) Lee’s, it’s more moderate than Lee’s and more progressive than Porter’s,” Schiff said. “But we’re all within a progressive range.”

Schiff said it’s his accomplishments that matter more to voters.

“What people are most interested in rather than the labels is what are you getting done? What are your accomplishments?” Schiff said. “… At the end of the day, you can’t be a progressive if you’re not able to make progress.”

Critics contest Schiff’s progressive label

Some, however, contest the longtime Congressman’s claim to the progressive label.

In early 2021, when it was rumored that Schiff was under consideration to become the California State Attorney General, a number of criminal reform and social justice groups wrote an open letter to Newsom asking him not to choose someone who had “used their power to punish Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and poor Californians.”

The groups pointed to a number of “tough on crime” bills Schiff authored or supported, most of which occurred during his time in California’s State Senate. Some of the examples, though, were more recent, such as Schiff’s support for the Thin Blue Line Act of 2017.

Schiff was a member of the California Legislature from 1996 to 2000 before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

While Schiff says he’s changed his views on things, noting that he left the moderate Blue Dog Coalition more than a decade ago, it’s clear not everyone thinks he’s earned the label of progressive.

Earlier this year, Schiff applied to and then withdrew his application to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, of which both Porter and Lee are members, after some said his application was “divisive.”

Schiff also voted in favor of the debt ceiling compromise, a bill that many progressives are against due to things like changes in work requirements for some food stamp recipients. Schiff says that the alternative was worse.

“A majority of the members of the Progressive Caucus voted for the debt ceiling bill,” Schiff said. “And frankly, I thought avoiding a default on the debt was the right decision… The alternative was unthinkable. The alternative would be default, would be recession, would be the loss of millions of jobs for Californians…”

One of the areas Schiff sees himself leading the pack on is money in politics.

“The very first bill I introduced when I got to Congress was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform in the House,” Schiff said. “I’m the author of the Citizens United-overturning amendment. In the House of Representatives, I take a backseat to no one when it comes to campaign finance reform.”

Schiff recently for the first time promised to refuse donations from corporate political action committees, a pledge Lee and Porter had already agreed to.

Schiff and Porter lead in poll of California voters

According to a recent survey of California voters by Emerson College Polling and Inside California Politics, Schiff is in a statistical tie with Porter in the March 2024 primary, with each being the first choice for just over 14% of respondents. 

6.2% of respondents said they favored Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).

Senate race poll results for Schiff, Porter and Lee

Schiff says he isn’t pushing for Feinstein to retire early.

“She’s going to make that decision based on her health, what she thinks is best for the state of California,” Schiff said. “I don’t think anyone can make that decision for her.”

Schiff also said he thinks Feinstein stepping down would cause issues for Democrats even if California’s Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom appointed a replacement.

“Count me in the category of skeptics who don’t believe that if she were to leave Republicans would appoint someone to sit in that judiciary committee seat and confirm judges,” Schiff said. “So the only way judges are going to get confirmed is if she’s there…”

If Feinstein were to step down, Gov. Gavin Newsom has previously pledged to fill her Senate seat with a Black woman.

Schiff says that voters should consider representation as one of several factors when deciding who to vote for.

“I think there is certainly a valid issue about representation in the Senate and I think voters will consider that and I think they should consider that,” Schiff said. “… But I also think voters should consider and will consider the candidates’ track records. What’s their record of accomplishment? What’s their record of leadership?”

Schiff emphasizes his Congressional record on current issues

Schiff says his record of accomplishments for the state in Congress is what most separates him from the other candidates.

“I think my record…of bringing back millions to find shelter for the homeless, building light rail for Californians, building an early earthquake warning system, passing legislation to update textbooks, these are concrete accomplishments and achievements that set me apart,” Schiff said.

The same poll by Inside California Politics and Emerson College Polling found that the economy and homelessness were some of the issues Californians were most concerned about.

Schiff said those are issues he is already working on.

“The federal government should play a much more dramatic role (on homelessness),” Schiff said. “I’ve introduced legislation to create tax incentives to build more affordable housing. I’ve introduced legislation to create an inter-agency council on affordable housing… I’ve introduced other legislation to help convert hotels and motels into shelters for people.”

“And very concretely, I’ve brought millions (of dollars) back to California to house people,” Schiff added. “And that record I think is quite unique among the candidates.”

Schiff suggests that many of the fears about the economy would be solved with more higher-paying jobs and tax credits for families.

“A big part of the problem is that the economy is simply not working for millions of Americans and that may seem counterintuitive at a time when unemployment is at a historic low,” Schiff said. “But the problem isn’t that people aren’t working, they are working and they are not making enough to get by.

“I’m going to work on strengthening collective bargaining, on job creation, bringing back resources, helping small businesses cut through red tape, getting people employed but also for good, high-paying jobs,” Schiff said.

“At the end of the day if people aren’t earning a good living, if they’re not making a prevailing wage, a living wage, it won’t matter how much we’re throwing at the housing problem, they’re not going to be able to afford housing.”

Trump’s first impeachment raised Schiff’s profile

One of the reasons regularly cited for Schiff’s lead in the polls is simply that of the candidates running he’s had the most national exposure thanks to his role on the Congressional committee that led an investigation into allegations that former President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian leaders to investigate Joe Biden in exchange for military aid. 

On Wednesday, Republicans in the House censured Schiff for his role in the investigations into Trump. This interview was conducted before that vote occurred.

Schiff said he draws a lot of Republican ire because they fear him.

“The MAGA extremists have taken me on because they see that I’m effective, that’s the truest sign from the real right when that you’re effective,” Schiff said.

Schiff said his role on that committee is another reason voters should send him to the Senate.

“Our democracy has been at deep risk in the last decade and one of us has played a central role in fighting this lurch toward authoritarianism and defending our democracy,” Schiff said. 

Should Trump become president again, Schiff says he is ready to take him on. 

“If he is elected again, I think it is a clear and present danger to our democracy,” Schiff said. “If he abuses his power, I will seek to check it just as I did before.”