For the first time since she was elected in 1992, more Californians do not want Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein re-elected than do, and her likely Republican opponent hopes to capitalize on that desire for change to oust the three-term senator.
Elizabeth Emken, a former efficiency expert at IBM and Vice President of Government Relations for Autism Speaks, believes that 2012 is her year.
“When you look at a Congress that has an 84 percent disapproval rating, that means that for the most part, the people of this country and certainly California are looking for new leadership,” Emken said in an interview with The Daily Caller. “It’s really, when you think about it, very sensible and logical to say look, we have got to shake out the existing environment.”
The “out with the old, in with the new” metaphor is something Emken appears to be carrying through the campaign. Already, she has won headlines for the fact that the 78-year-old Feinstein began tweeting for the first time, just days after Emken, 48, had sent out a fundraising email lambasting the senator’s old-fashioned ways.
“I still don’t think she’s using it, by the way,” Emken opined. “I think her staff has finally decided they better be on it.”
Emken, on the other hand, tweets regularly, and she believes that it is essential for elected officials to use social media.
“I think they have a responsibility to use every method of communication that’s out there to talk to their constituents,” she said. “Part of the problem you have is that you don’t have a dialogue between elected officials and their constituents. They’ve built these barricades, these barriers around themselves and tried to avoid interaction with their constituents.”
And having your staff tweet out updates on what you are working on doesn’t cut it in Emken’s book. Social media should go both ways: elected officials should be communicating to their constituents, but also reading their tweets and understanding what they’re going through and what the problems are that plague their daily lives.
Emken hopes to apply that digital age sensibility to campaigning, where she is likely to struggle to compete with Feinstein financially, by using social media and embracing the 24-hour news cycle to get her message out. She also hopes to harness the national attention that would bring to increase fundraising.
“I think, of course, all senate races are national races … and I’m planning on a lot of help from across the country in $25 and $50 increments, and I’m already getting larger dollar support,” she said.
Emken began her career at IBM, where she focused on “cost and efficiency.”
“I would do comparative analysis from one business unit to the next, and make accounting suggestions,” she explained, a skill that she hopes to apply to the federal government.
Fifteen years ago, she changed course and began lobbying on behalf of Autism Speaks, after her son was diagnosed with autism. After 8 years, she became Vice President of Government Relations. As a result, she’s very familiar with the ins and outs of the legislative process, having helped to push through legislation like the Children’s Health Act of 2000 and the Combating Autism Act of 2006.
But Emken argues she’s not just a lobbyist with an agenda.
“I think what makes these bill stand out is that in these bills I put accountability mechanisms… There’s a requirement of a strategic plan, there’s a requirement for a report to congress to mark the objectives, how we’re doing in terms of the strategic plans. And there’s also sunset provisions — it says, look you have to come back and justify why would we should continue funding these programs. These are elements that I believe should be encompassed in all types of legislation,” she explained.
In 2010, she made an unsuccessful run for Congress, failing to get past the primary. The triggers, she said, were the 2009 stimulus bill and the Affordable Care Act.
“I felt that our government was really going in the wrong direction. What started off as health reform ceased being health care reform very soon after that bill was introduced and started to become health insurance reform. And it was health insurance reform done the wrong way. I knew it was being done poorly and being done the wrong way,” explained Emken.
She wants to reform health care, but she is quick to note her own stake in making sure there is a functional system.
“My son… he’s now 19, and he’s profoundly disabled, and he will need a lifetime of care. He’s going to be a lifetime user of the systems that we have in place,” she explained. “So I’m not going to go back and destroy the systems; I’m going to fix them and make them sustainable over the long run.”
If she does win the election, her big goal will be “fixing Washington.”
“The way our federal agencies are funded, the way the authorizing of these programs are done, I think needs to be completely revamped. I would say that’s my number one priority,” Emken said. “That folds right into another one of my top priorities, which is to attack and address spending. I think we can do it. I really believe we can get to where we need to be by overhauling the way we fund our federal agencies and building in accountability mechanisms, I think we will make the progress we need to be solvent again as a country.”
Fixing things also includes “getting the economy going.”
Efficiency expert that she is, that means prioritizing, and putting things like social issues on the backburner. She lambasted the Republican debate last month in New Hampshire when the candidates had a long discussion about contraception.
“I was thinking, ‘why are we talking about contraception when we’re looking at financial collapse of the country?’ I mean for Pete’s sake… Let’s not fiddle while Rome burns,” she said.
It should be an exciting race. When Emken ran for Congress in 2008, the primary got fairly nasty, with her and her opponents going after each other aggressively. And Emken is not opposed to running a similarly aggressive race this time around.
“There’s so much about Dianne Feinstein that I think has been let go by a lot of people in California. I absolutely believe the voters have a right to know about a number of things in her record — what she has done for, or done to, California in the last 20 years,” Emken said.
Moreover, she said she’s prepared for the fight.
“I have been through many a tangle back in D.C. I remember congressman David Obey f-bombed me out of his office one time; I had a senator screaming at me outside the Senate dining room. I’m not afraid of anything that they’ll fling at me, and I will not hesitate to make the contrast between myself and Senator Feinstein. The contrast is dramatic, and voters have a right to know exactly what they’re getting,” Emken said.
Emken previewed some of her attacks on Feinstein in her interview with TheDC, for one, taking on Feinstein for her wealth, which Emken suggests makes her unable to empathize with the plight of the many Californians who are suffering financially.
“Ironically, if you look at Dianne Feinstein’s profile and you look at my profile, I’m the 99 percent,” Emken said. “Dianne Feinstein’s the one percent. She appeals to one percent. I appeal to everyone who understands what it is to have kids in school, have a mortgage, to work for a living; to have someone in their family or in their life who is less-abled and who is going to need help from the government.”
How Feinstein became so wealthy, Emken suggested, could also be a point of attack.
“You could argue how she got to that place of being in the financial one percent,” Emken said suggestively.
Lastly, Feinstein was one of several California Democrats who was swindled by Kinde Durkee, who served as her campaign treasurer and defrauded her and other campaigns of large sums of money. The fact that she let that happen, Emken suggested, is cause for alarm.
“She’s the one who really needs to explain how that happened,” she said. “And I think I can make the case on the campaign finance alone of why we don’t want to have Dianne Feinstein holding anyone’s bank account anymore, much less the federal government’s bank account.”