Sen. Alex Padilla holds up an illustration of some pink and purple flowers emerging from a gilded vase.
“When I was leaving her staff in 1997, this was her gift to me,” he says of his former boss. “I was blown away.”
Dianne Feinstein was best known as California’s first female senator, but she was also an artist on the side who liked to hand out examples of her work. The gesture meant a lot to Padilla, who was a young field representative at the time in her Los Angeles office.
It was one of his first jobs in politics, and he remembers driving long hours on Interstate 405 hoping to make a difference, as wildfires raged and anti-immigrant proposals swirled.
When he launched a political career of his own, he stayed in touch with Feinstein and eventually joined her in the Senate, taking the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris.
“It’s in part thanks to her groundbreaking career that a Latino son of immigrants could not just work for her, but work alongside her,” he said in an emotional tribute to Feinstein on the Senate floor, after she died at age 90 last month.
Padilla sat down with Roll Call to share his memories of his onetime boss and colleague, including her expectation for staffers: “Never go into a meeting unprepared.” Or as he put it on the floor: “You did not want to not have the answer to her question.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you start working for Feinstein?
A: I was fresh off a campaign in 1996, and get this: It was Tony Cárdenas for State Assembly, in his first run for office. He’s now in the House.
Both of us had no background in electoral politics. Total underdog race. He was the candidate, me the campaign manager, and he won the primary by almost 20 points.
Word must have gotten around pretty quickly, because I got a call from a woman named Maryann Reyes, who was leaving Sen. Feinstein’s Los Angeles office, and she encouraged me to apply for the position.
Q: You were there for about a year. What did a typical day look like for you?
A: I remember driving the 405 way too much for my health, from the valley to the office, which is still in the same location. My official job was field representative, and I had part of Southern California.
But as one of the few Latinos on staff, for any quote-unquote Latino issues, I’d be traveling the state on her behalf. And this was 1996, so it was two years after Prop 187 [that aimed to block undocumented immigrants from using social services], and Prop 209 was on the ballot [to ban affirmative action in public education]. It was that era of California politics.
This is still very relevant today. I remember sitting in a staff meeting, and they wanted to do an event to highlight if Proposition 209 were to pass, what kind of programs would be impacted. And so I shared my story. When I was in high school, I participated in the MESA program — Math, Engineering, Science Achievement. It was basically a program trying to bring more students of color into the technical fields, and it even included a stipend if you kept your GPA up.
So Sen. Feinstein came to my old high school to do a visit, talk to students, learn about the program and bring the cameras along. Prop 209 ended up passing, but to bring a United States senator to your alma mater as a staffer — that was huge.
Q: What other moments stood out to you as a young staffer?
A: I remember that summer was yet another tough one for wildfires, though nowhere near what we’ve been through the last few years. Sen. Feinstein couldn’t do the fly-around with FEMA because she had to be in Washington for votes, so I was selected to travel with James Lee Witt, the director of FEMA at the time.
We’re flying around in a Black Hawk helicopter, and I’m like 23 years old, 24 years old. Nobody told me not to wear a suit — so I’m in a suit, roughing it. We ended up in Malibu, talking to locals.
Those sorts of flashbacks helped inform the FIRE Act when I came into the Senate. That was one of my first stand-alone bills signed by President Biden, to help improve FEMA’s readiness for wildfires.
Q: How else did that early job shape the rest of your career?
A: It helped with relationship building. And I saw the very wonky mechanics of a Senate office. I always admired Sen. Feinstein for her effectiveness, regardless of who was in the majority. We’re gonna focus on the job, work both sides of the aisle and forge agreements, even and especially when they’re very difficult, like saving redwoods in Northern California.
To me, that was a model. And I later adopted a lot of her internal office procedures, including weekly reports. Every single member of the staff submits, on a weekly basis, a summary of updates on important projects. I plow through that 40-to-50 page document every weekend.
Q: In your tribute to Feinstein on the Senate floor last month, you said she was an example of grace, unless staff members happened to come into meetings unprepared. Did you ever see that firsthand?
A: Thankfully, no, because I was warned sufficiently in advance to avoid that scenario. [Laughs.]
But [working for her] just started a relationship I’m eternally grateful for. When I left her office and eventually ran for office myself, every time I ran, she endorsed me. Even when it was a local race, where most senators don’t get involved in local races, or even when my main opposition were women. She was elected in the year of the woman, she embodied the year of the woman, but she was willing to support me when I ran for City Council, when I ran for state Senate.
I still pinch myself to think that we served side by side [in Washington] for more than two and a half years.
Q: Do you remember your last conversation with her?
A: Yes. Tijuana River. We’re still fighting for funding to improve the infrastructure at the San Diego–Tijuana border. She was on the Appropriations Committee, and we were trying to avoid a government shutdown, and there was chatter about, you know, do we try to put it in a spending plan? Are we looking at the supplemental option, working OMB, working with the State Department? Just very, very specific. That was probably the Wednesday before she passed.
Q: Feinstein didn’t support the Green New Deal, but you do. Where else did you find yourself diverging from your former boss?
A: We were very closely aligned on a whole lot of things. Even on the Green New Deal, I think it was degrees, not polar opposites.
I think [we diverged] on water. You know, water is important in California and very complex. There was the Sen. Feinstein way of approaching it and the Sen. [Barbara] Boxer way of approaching it. I’m maybe in the middle of that spectrum.
Agriculture certainly deserves to have a significant voice here, but over the years, there’s been more of a resistance for agriculture to make investments or to have accountability measures in place for groundwater pumping, for example. It’s not that I don’t want the federal government to do its part, but it should do its part and growers should do their part.
[But overall] our offices worked well together. I signed on to a lot of the bills that she would carry, and she would sign on to a lot of mine. Not a coincidence, my legislative director used to be her legislative director, so it kept the offices functioning pretty seamlessly.
Q: What memories do you have of Feinstein that speak to who she was?
A: Every time I would come to Washington [before I was a senator], I’d at least check in. It was always, “Come by the office for 10 minutes,” and I would be there for 30 or 45.
I can’t think of a time where I walked away without her insisting on giving me something. Sometimes it was just a little souvenir from the gift shop — I have a Senate necktie because of her. A lot of times it was books. The funnest read was “The Lost Symbol” by Dan Brown, which is based in D.C.
Q: Did she quiz you later to make sure you’d read it?
A: No, because I would tell her first before she could ask. Just like you would never go into a meeting unprepared — don’t wait for her to ask. Just prove to her that you did. She appreciated that.