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Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving U.S. senator who led San Francisco through its darkest and most violent days as mayor in the 1970s and later authored a federal ban on assault weapons that lasted a decade, died Thursday night at her home in Washington, D.C.
At 90, she was the oldest member of Congress and the longest-serving female in the chamber’s history. During a lingering bout of shingles earlier this year and ongoing reports of her mental decline, Feinstein resisted pressure from her own party to resign.
Former Speaker of the House and fellow San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi delivered a tribute to Feinstein on the floor of the U.S. House on Friday, saying that the senator led “with great dignity, with great effectiveness and great leadership” and “left on her own terms.”
Her death will force Gov. Gavin Newsom to make a crucial decision he said recently he hoped he wouldn’t have to face: appointing a replacement to serve the rest of Feinstein’s term with the hotly contested race to succeed her in full swing.
In a statement Friday morning, Newsom called Feinstein a “dear friend and lifelong mentor” who was a role model not only to him but to his wife and daughters for what a powerful and effective leader looks like.
“She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace. She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation,” Newsom said.
There is nobody, he said, “who possessed the strength, gravitas, and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein.”
Dianne Feinstein was many things — a powerful, trailblazing U.S. Senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos. But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a…
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) September 29, 2023
At the start of her career, Feinstein was a trailblazer for women and gay rights, and after the 1978 assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, she emerged as a reassuring leader and formidable force who pulled together the city that was still reeling from the Jonestown Massacre in Guyana 10 days earlier, where 900 people connected to the San Francisco-based People’s Temple died.
In what would become known as “The Year of the Woman” in 1992, she shared a historic moment with Barbara Boxer when they were both elected to the U.S. Senate and California became the first state with two women senators. Feinstein won in a special election and was sworn in first.
“She had tenacity. She never gave up,” especially in passing the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994, Boxer said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “I will always remember how proud I was when she stood her ground on the floor of the Senate, when some of the men said, ‘Well, you don’t even understand what an AR-15 is,’ and she said, ‘I understand what gun violence is. I had to put my finger through a hole in the wrist (of Harvey Milk).’ It was very emotional.”
Feinstein also pioneered a number of other firsts: first woman mayor of San Francisco, first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and the first woman to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee, a watershed moment after public outrage over the handling of Anita Hill’s testimony during the male-dominated Supreme Court nomination hearings of Clarence Thomas in 1991.
“There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother,” her chief of staff, James Sauls, said in a statement Friday. “Senator Feinstein was a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state.”
In 1994, the same year she passed the weapons ban, Feinstein wrote the California Desert Protection Act that established Death Valley and Joshua Tree as national parks and doubled the amount of federally protected wilderness in California. She also brokered landmark deals to preserve some of California’s key landscapes, protecting ancient redwoods at Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County and restoring as wetlands 16,500 acres of former industrial salt ponds around San Francisco Bay.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, she publicly released the “Torture Report” that exposed the CIA’s interrogation program that failed to work on terrorist suspects and, along with the late Sen. John McCain, authored legislation outlawing the CIA’s use of torture.
Feinstein is the 302nd senator to die in office and the first since McCain. President Biden was in Phoenix on Thursday honoring the late Arizona Republican with funds for a library in his name.
In a statement, Biden said Friday that he had a “front row seat” to Feinstein’s accomplishments serving in the Senate together for 15 years and recruited her to serve on the Judiciary Committee when he was chairman.
“There’s no better example of her skillful legislating and sheer force of will than when she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons,” Biden said. “Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties.”
For those old enough to remember the shocking assassinations at San Francisco City Hall in 1978, it was Feinstein’s brief videotaped news conference and its aftermath that launched her national political career. Standing outside the supervisors’ offices, news cameras illuminating her face, she delivered the shocking news: “As president of the board of supervisors, it’s my duty to make this announcement. Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed,” she said as the media erupted in gasps and shouts. “The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”
She would later detail her actions that morning; When she heard the shots, she raced into Milk’s office. “I tried to get a pulse,” she said, “and put my finger through a bullet hole.”
Duffy Jennings, a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter who was in the crowd when she made the announcement, said her leadership through a tumultuous era would come to define Feinstein.
“She was incredibly resilient, strong and decisive,” Jennings said in an interview with the Bay Area News Group. “It wasn’t just Jonestown and Dan White. The ‘70s had the Zodiac killer, Patty Hearst, the SLA, the New World Liberation Front, counterculture extremism. It was a horrific decade in San Francisco and the Bay Area. And politically, she was as strong as anybody in holding the town together.”
At one point, New World Liberation Front — an anti-capitalist terrorist group — planted a bomb on the windowsill of her daughter’s bedroom. It failed to explode.
Born in San Francisco in 1933, Dianne Emiel Goldman was the daughter of a prominent surgeon. She was Jewish but attended the prestigious Convent of the Sacred Heart Catholic girls school, where she acted in plays and — because of her 5-foot-10-inch height — often played male roles. In the early 1950s, she attended Stanford University, where she was elected vice president of the student body.
When Feinstein entered San Francisco politics in the late 1960s, “nobody took her seriously,” said Jerry Roberts, the Chronicle’s former executive editor who wrote an early biography called “Never Let Them See You Cry,” named for one of Feinstein’s tips for businesswomen.
Early media reports of her campaigns, he said, were “unbelievably sexist” and often characterized her as a “raven-haired beauty” with a “slender figure.” Her husband at the time, Dr. Bertram Feinstein, was widely mocked as a “first husband.”
“Just in terms of the cultural obstacles that she had to overcome to be taken seriously and to win is something people don’t think a lot about now,” Roberts said. “She was never a movement feminist, but she was a feminist.”
She kept a firefighter’s turnout jacket and helmet in her trunk to race to fires and once gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a man she saw collapse in the Tenderloin. She listened to a police scanner in her office.
Although she opposed domestic partnership legislation for the city in 1982, when the AIDS epidemic broke out, Feinstein “got right on it. I mean, instantly,” said Louise Renne, whom Feinstein appointed as San Francisco’s first woman City Attorney. “The folks at San Francisco General were pulled in to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and San Francisco took a leadership role in solving that problem.”
Feinstein was considered moderate politically, supporting environmental causes but also encouraging commercial high rise development in downtown San Francisco. She is credited with completing the Moscone Convention Center project, renovating the city’s cable car system and retrofitting Candlestick Park before the Loma Prieta earthquake struck during the third game of the 1989 World Series.
Feinstein ran for governor of California in 1990 and lost to Republican Pete Wilson, whom she would replace in the Senate. In 1996, she was one of only 14 senators who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act that prevented the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages.
Her leadership opened doors for two San Francisco women who would become the most powerful female politicians in the country — Pelosi as Speaker of the House and Kamala Harris as vice president.
Under pressure, Feinstein announced in February she would not seek a sixth term in 2024, but she remained in office despite her lingering illness. Her absence from Senate votes earlier this year opened her to criticism that she handicapped her fellow Democrats in the split Senate to appoint judicial nominees.
Her death in office will set up a crucial decision for Newsom, who has said he would appoint a Black woman to the seat if Feinstein retired early. But with three high-profile Democrats — Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee — battling for Feinstein’s seat, Newsom has said he would turn to an “interim appointment” rather than somebody campaigning for the job.
Feinstein was married three times. The first to Jack Berman ended in divorce. Her second husband, neurosurgeon Feinstein, died of colon cancer months before the Moscone and Milk assassinations. In 1980, she married investment banker Richard Blum, who died in 2022.
Feinstein’s only daughter Katherine Feinstein, a former San Francisco Superior Court judge, helped care for her in her mansion on the Lyon Steps in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. Family infighting made headlines over the summer when Feinstein’s daughter sued Blum’s grown children over the marital estate, claiming they were shorting funds to her mother’s care to increase their inheritance. The Blum family countered that they acted “ethically and appropriately at all times.”
Looking back, Boxer recalls when she and Feinstein were first elected to the Senate, her colleague sat her down and told her, “You’ve got to stick with this. The longer you stay, the better you’ll feel, the more you’ll get done.”
Feinstein stuck with it on Capitol Hill for three decades, summing up why in her final acceptance speech, years before the political implications of her frail health threatened her legacy.
In the 2018 speech, she called serving in the Senate “the greatest honor in my life.”
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