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Is advanced age a problem reserved for women in political office?

In 2018, Dianne Feinstein was elected to her fifth full term in the United States Senate. She was 85 years old.

His opponent, Kevin de León, was more than 30 years younger and made Feinstein’s age a central part of his campaign. “It’s time for change,” he told voters. It’s time for “a new voice that expresses the values ​​of California today, not yesterday.”

After winning, Feinstein spent his final years suffering from very chronic physical and cognitive decline. She faced incessant calls to resign, which the Democrat studiously ignored, dying hours after a final vote in the Senate. She was 90 years old.

Angus King and Bernie Sanders, two geriatric members of the U.S. Senate, are now up for re-election, seeking their third and fourth terms, respectively. King would be 86 years old and Sanders 89 years old in January 2031 when these terms expire.

Both are independents who caucus with Democrats. Everyone is heavily favored to win in November.

“I would be stunned if he didn’t,” Chris Potholm, a professor emeritus at Bowdoin College in Maine, said of King.

“Unbeatable” is how Garrison Nelson of the University of Vermont described Sanders. “He’s as strong as it gets in the race.”

As the two oldest presidential candidates in history battle for the White House — and as President Biden, in particular, faces lingering questions about his mental and physical acuity — it’s striking how the longevity of the two incumbent senators appears to matter little in their re-election bids.

“I haven’t seen any pushback against Sen. King because of his age,” said Amy Fried, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Maine.

The same goes for Sanders, who suffered a heart attack in 2019 during his second presidential campaign.

“I don’t think the age factor is important enough to threaten his re-election,” said Matthew Dickinson of Middlebury College in Vermont.

This is partly because voters generally view political office from different perspectives.

They are “much more accepting of an aging person in a legislative position, being one of 100 people in the Senate or one of 435 in the House, than in an executive position,” said Charlie Cook, who spent decades of hampering elections nationwide. .

“Although being a senator or congressman is a more demanding job than many think…it is nothing like being a chief executive.”

That said, was there another standard — one double standard — applied to Feinstein, as an 80-something woman serving in an organization that is still largely a men’s club?

Many of his defenders thought so. Among examples, they highlighted the deference shown to Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain after they were diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Both remained in office and left Washington for extended periods to receive medical treatment. Neither faced the outcry that enveloped Feinstein.

The path that King and Sanders are taking toward re-election would also seem to underscore the idea that Feinstein, their generational counterpart, was treated more harshly based on her gender.

But there are important distinctions.

Finally, there is no evidence that King or Sanders suffer from the obvious deficiencies that befell Feinstein during his final years in office, marked by several prolonged absences due to health problems.

King “has a very busy schedule,” said Potholm, who has written a half-dozen books on Maine politics. “Talk to him for five minutes and you’ll see he’s as sharp as a bug.”

Sanders “shows no discernible slips, stutters or mumbles or age-related disconnects,” said Nelson, who has known the senator for more than half a century, dating back to Sanders’ agitating days as a candidate. repeatedly failed for statewide office. .

Size also matters.

Maine, with 1.4 million residents, and Vermont, with 650,000 residents, are small states, both in size and population.. This allows voters to get to know politicians better on a personal level, establishing a connection that isn’t possible in California, where politics tends to be more transactional — as in “What have you done for me these last few years?” time ?

Much of the fuss surrounding Feinstein came from his political stance, particularly from those on the left who have long viewed the former San Francisco mayor as too moderate for their tastes. They sought to pressure her into resigning so that Gov. Gavin Newsom could appoint someone more reliable liberal.

As Feinstein’s health faltered, the stakes were raised by the nearly even division of the Senate.

She chaired the Judiciary Committee until concerns about her fitness forced her to relinquish the position two years after her re-election. She remained on the committee, but her absences jeopardized Democrats’ ability to confirm Biden’s judicial nominees.

It was this, not Feinstein’s gender, that caused her age “to be much more in the spotlight” than it would have been under other circumstances, said Georgetown professor Michele Swers and author of two books on women in Congress.

In February 2023, Feinstein had the good sense to announce that she would not seek another term, paving the way for a strong campaign to succeed her. When she died last September, Newsom named Laphonza Butler as caretaker.

At 45 – young by Senate standards – Butler had this to say about King and Sanders: “Not all octogenarians are the same.”

Plus, she told Politico, “judging one person, or five people, or two people based on the number on their birth certificate is probably not the best representation of American freedom.” »

But don’t take her or anyone else’s word for it. It’s up to the voters of Maine and Vermont, who will have the final say in November.

California Daily Newspapers

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