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Some Californians have raised a delicate political question. What age makes you too old to hold a demanding and important job? Her critics have aimed that question at Senator Dianne Feinstein. At age 84, she is the oldest member of the Senate. She is also a deeply influential Democrat, and she is running for another term. NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: Dianne Feinstein may be the oldest member of the Senate, but not by much. There are seven more senators who are also in their 80s. None of them, however, is running for re-election this year. And some political columnists have said that at age 84, Feinstein shouldn't be. Harold Meyerson, executive editor of the liberal magazine The American Prospect, made that argument in a column in The Los Angeles Times.
HAROLD MEYERSON: This is a six-year term which is the longest term any elected officials in the United States can be elected to. So the issue isn't simply what shape is Dianne Feinstein in at age 84, it's also what shape will she or anyone be in at age 91?
JAFFE: And there's no way to predict. Jennifer Ailshire, an assistant professor of gerontology at the University of Southern California, says people age really differently from one individual to the next, and their number of years doesn't always tell you much.
JENNIFER AILSHIRE: Rather than focus on someone's age, we should be focusing on their biological age, which is the age of their cells, tissues and organs.
JAFFE: And that's not the sort of information that voters have access to. What they do know about Feinstein is that she received a pacemaker last year but only missed a single day of work. That work includes serving as a top Democrat on the Judiciary and Appropriations Committees, as well as the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Throughout her career, she's been a cautious, middle-of-the-road politician. That served her well when she was first elected to the Senate in 1992 and the California electorate was also more moderate. But Harold Meyerson says California leans more to the left these days.
MEYERSON: So in many ways, I think she still positions herself to the right of certainly where California Democrats are and, in many ways, of where California is.
JAFFE: But it's never been Feinstein's way to be a liberal flame thrower. Instead, she reminded an audience in San Francisco last year that what's important is knowing how to get things done.
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DIANNE FEINSTEIN: You've got to be able to compromise. And compromise, ladies and gentlemen, isn't a dirty word. Compromise is what moves this government forward.
JAFFE: Feinstein's major primary challenger is 33 years her junior and coming from her left.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "KEVIN DE LEON")
KEVIN DE LEON: I'm the youngest child of a single, immigrant mother.
JAFFE: That's Kevin de Leon, the leader of the California State Senate in a campaign video. A campaign spokesman said they wouldn't comment for a story that focused on Feinstein's age. Leon's been endorsed by the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, which claims around 300,000 members in California. Neil Sroka is the communications director. He says it's a problem when politicians serve term after term as Feinstein has because it prevents a new generation of leaders from moving up.
NEIL SROKA: And we can't do that if the same old people are running for the same old offices over and over again.
JAFFE: Raising a candidate's age as a campaign issue has rarely inflicted much damage. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan made a joke of it. And two years ago, when Senator John McCain's primary opponent said he was too old, the media called her desperate. But Feinstein may be more vulnerable. While polls show her ahead by double digits, one survey showed her support dropping several points when voters were told how old she was. Bill Carrick is Feinstein's longtime political strategist. He says there have always been older politicians. Then again, they were all men.
BILL CARRICK: We now are getting to the point where if there's senior senators who are female, there seems to be quite a double standard.
JAFFE: Gerontologist Jennifer Ailshire says if there is going to be a double standard, the sign says it should be the other way around.
AILSHIRE: Because women have a survival advantage over men. Scientists have found that men have higher epigenetic aging rates, meaning their cells and tissues are older even when they're the same chronological age than women.
JAFFE: Whether age should be an election issue will ultimately be settled by an electorate that is also aging a dozen years from now. One fifth of the U.S. population will be 65 years old or more. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
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