Barbara Boxer served 34 years in Congress – 24 of them in the Senate seat now held by Joe Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris. With the Democratic National Convention in full swing this week, Spectrum News caught up with the longstanding California politician to get her take on the Democratic ticket, the Golden State’s representation in Washington, and what’s at stake with the November election.
Some political analysts have said a vote for Biden is simply a vote to restore normalcy to the presidency. As someone who served so long in federal government, how do you suggest we go about piecing our polarized country back together?
I think we need a wave election. We need a mandate. We need to see not only Biden, but we need to see a Democratic Senate. Right now, things are filibustered. It’s a mess. We can’t get anything done. If we had that kind of a mandate, then it’s up to the Democrats to fix it. If we don’t, we will face it in two years when the House is up and then with members of the Senate. We need a mandate to get this thing back on track. It’s so off track. It’s so frightening when you have a president who’s going after an iconic institution like the Post Office and going after Social Security. I mean that’s what he’s doing when he’s doing away with the payroll tax for the moment. He’s stopping Social Security. This is dangerous. He’s trying to un-do America. It’s scary.
During Monday’s opening night of the Democratic National Convention, dozens of speakers talked about what might happen to the country if voters elect President Trump to another term. What are your thoughts if Trump serves another four years?
We won’t recognize our country if Trump gets re-elected. We’ll look more like Russia, a totalitarian state. He’ll only have people in there that will salute him. It’s pretty scary. And then he’ll say he wants to go for a third term and a fourth term. We’ve got to stop this. This is a travesty, what's happening. The only good thing is he tells you. He says, "Oh yeah. I’d love to run for three or four terms." So he’s very dictatorial, tyrannical. We’ve never had a president like this in modern history.
It’s been a week since Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate. What were your thoughts when you first heard the news?
Joe Biden made a terrific choice when he added Kamala Harris to the ticket. First of all, she is very experienced as a legislator and executive, so that’s unusual. Second of all, the ticket is so healing because it brings us together, a man and a woman, different ages, different ethnic backgrounds. It’s what we need in America because we have suffered so from this president dividing us every day.
If Biden wins the presidency this November, the Kamala Harris Senate seat will be filled with whomever Gov. Newsom appoints until her term ends in 2022. Karen Bass, Adam Schiff, and Katie Porter have all been floated as possible fill-ins, but what sorts of qualities do you think are best suited for whomever could eventually fill that Senate seat?
First of all, Gavin has to decide whether he is going to get a placeholder and let the voters decide this, or if he’s going to pick somebody special that he feels will be able to do a great job and hold the seat. I personally think he’ll talk to Kamala, and Kamala will have a lot to do with it because we have the deepest, deepest bench. I do think at the end of the day, we really do need to have a minority because the Senate is still not reflective of our nation, and I think it would be great to have a minority seat.
Between you and Kamala Harris, there’s been a decades-long precedent of a woman holding the seat. Should that continue with another female?
I think that would be fabulous, but there are all kinds of things that go into it. There may be a male candidate that, for some reason, just brings more to the table, so I don’t think that Gov. Newsom should narrow it to that degree, except in my opinion it ought to be a minority.
Harris is the only Black, female Senator. And when you were in the Senate, serving with Dianne Feinstein, the two of you were the first female pair of U.S. Senators representing any state at the same time. That was just a few years ago. Why is progress toward more equal representation so slow?
Turning the ship of state around and changing it in America, it’s tough, it’s slow, it takes its time. When Dianne and I got elected, we went from three women senators out of 100 to six, and people said, "Oh, isn’t this fabulous? You’ve doubled your numbers." We only had six women there and 94 men, and we knew it would take a long time. Now we’re up to 26 percent or so. It’s a slow grind, but that’s America. The founders, who were very imperfect, said we want to form a more perfect union. That means it’s up to each of us to make it so.
Between you, Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, and Nancy Pelosi, California has a history of electing strong, principled, and pioneering women to Congress. Is there something in the water out here? Or are we, as a state, just more open-minded about who is best able to lead?
I think California has always been open to new ideas, to seeing things a little bit differently, to opening their hearts. When Dianne and I ran, there was still a lot of prejudice. People would say, "Oh, I can vote for one woman. I can’t possibly vote for two." And another would say, "Oh, and two Jewish women. That's unbelievable." So Sen. Feinstein and I had some answers. As two Jewish women, we said the country needs a dose of chicken soup. We have a lot of problems. We need to heal. And Dianne would say, "Two percent might be great for milk, but it’s not good enough for the Senate." Bottom line is, it’s been tough, but Dianne and I found out even with all those comments and some nasty ones at that, people wanted us there, and we went there, and she’s still there.
You’re originally from New York, but you served in Congress on behalf of California. We’re a big, diverse state with a thriving economy that is oftentimes a social and cultural bellwether for the rest of the country. What are the advantages and disadvantages of representing California in Washington?
When Dianne Feinstein and I came into the Senate, they had a rule there called ABC. It stood for Anybody But California, because there was kind of a jealousy going on there from the other states. They thought we had everything. We had so many military bases, we had the entertainment industry, we started to have Silicon Valley. We had the breadbasket. The tourist attractions we have were unbelievable. So they kept saying, "Well, you don't need any help. You don’t need anything." When we came in there, California was not being treated well. We didn’t get 100 percent of our transportation dollars back. We got something like 70 percent, and we had to fight, and I went on some committees and Senator Feinstein did, and we changed all of that. We had to work pretty hard. When we started to have earthquakes and all of those things, our colleagues decided they were going to help us, so we changed a lot of attitudes at that time.
You served 24 years in the Senate and 10 in the House. But even though you retired from Congress in 2017, you remain politically active as the founder of PAC For a Change. Tell me more about your “Fight Back PAC,” and what you’re hoping to achieve this election cycle.
When I was in the Senate, I started it like a little sleepy PAC. And when I left and Donald Trump came in and he started to go after everything I think America holds dear, I just kind of woke up that PAC. I put together a team of people, and we started to raise funds to give to great candidates – incumbents we feel are really fighting the good fight, and challengers. This year we started a project called Meet the Moment, and it’s about electing Black Senators to the Senate. Thirteen percent of our population in America is Black, and we only have three percent of the Senate. We have some fabulous Senators running in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and we’re working hard on that plus all the other candidates we feel are terrific. We’re pretty involved all over the country.
At the time of your retirement, you ranked eleventh in seniority in the United States Senate. Is it frustrating or more of a relief to be applying pressure from the outside, as opposed to within Congress?
I’ve been blessed in this regard. I always know what I want to do when I want to do it. I’m not a person that struggles with "Should I do that?" Once I got to the House of Representatives, I really wrapped my arms around the issues. I had a seat I could’ve held to this day if I wanted to, but I really, really felt it was time for me to move on. When 2016 came, I looked at it, and I said, "It’s been unbelievable." I think Barack Obama said it best when he left. He said being a citizen is one of the best jobs, and I found that to be the case. For example, I’m going to start teaching a course at USC on demystifying politics in governance. I’m very excited, and my class is oversubscribed. Unfortunately, I have to do it virtually, but I think it’s going to be great. I’m not the kind of person who can retire. I want to make this country better. That's what my life has been about, raising my family, making sure they’re as good as they can be, and working for my country.
This interview has been edited for brevity.