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Dianne Feinstein, longest serving woman in the Senate, has died at 90

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2022.
Anna Moneymaker
Getty Images
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, speaks during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2022.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate from California in 1992 in a wave election known as "the Year of the Woman" and went on to champion gun control, has died at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 90 years old.

In a statement released Friday morning, James Sauls, Feinstein's Senate chief of staff, confirmed her death.

"There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother. Senator Feinstein was a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state," Sauls wrote. "She left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary. There is much to say about who she was and what she did, but for now, we are going to grieve the passing of our beloved boss, mentor and friend."

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has yet to announce plans for Feinstein's replacement, focusing his first response instead on her legacy.

"She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation," Newsom said in a statement. "Every race she won, she made history, but her story wasn't just about being the first woman in a particular political office, it was what she did for California, and for America, with that power once she earned it. That's what she should be remembered for."

Feinstein's rise in politics began on Nov. 27, 1978, when her city was jolted by two political assassinations at City Hall. As president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she announced the news to a shocked press corps.

"As president of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to announce that both Mayor [George] Moscone and Supervisor [Harvey] Milk have been shot and killed," Feinstein said in a firm but clearly stunned voice.

At that moment, Feinstein became interim mayor and went on to win election and later reelection, serving as mayor until 1988.

Leading San Francisco after tragedy

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — a longtime political ally of hers — said Feinstein's handling of the assassinations crisis cemented her reputation.

"It was a dramatic demonstration of how in the face of total and complete disaster, somebody could stand up to settle the ship," Brown said in 2022.

After the City Hall assassinations, Mayor Feinstein signed a local gun control ordinance, angering a fringe gun rights organization called the White Panthers. Collaborating with groups unhappy with the mayor's pro-growth, pro-business and other moderate policies, the White Panthers managed to collect enough signatures to place a recall of Feinstein on the ballot in 1983. The recall failed, catapulting Feinstein into easy reelection later that year.

Supervisor Dianne Feinstein running for mayor of San Francisco in October 1971.
/ Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Supervisor Dianne Feinstein running for mayor of San Francisco in October 1971.

As mayor, Feinstein governed from the center — winning support from business groups, law enforcement unions and the city's more conservative voters. Her moderate governing style often angered San Francisco's more liberal activists. In 1982 she vetoed legislation that would have allowed same-sex couples to form domestic partnerships entitling them to city benefits, hospital visitation rights and more. She also refused to sign "comparable worth" legislation guaranteeing women equal pay to men who work similar jobs.

In a 2001 interview with C-SPAN, Feinstein attributed her political philosophy to her upbringing.

"My mother was a Democrat. My father was a Goldwater Republican. So we had a split family," Feinstein said.

Achieving national standing

In 1984, San Francisco hosted the Democratic National Convention. Feinstein landed on the cover of Time magazine and made the short list to be presidential nominee Walter Mondale's running mate.

By then the AIDS epidemic was ravaging her city. The federal government under President Ronald Reagan mostly ignored it. A young physician at San Francisco General Hospital, Paul Volberding, often briefed Mayor Feinstein on what was needed to fight the disease.

"I don't recall any moment in the early epidemic when I was told, 'No, we can't do that because we don't have the resources,' " recalled Volberding, who became one of the pioneers in AIDS treatment.

In fact, in the mid-1980s, San Francisco alone was spending more on AIDS than the entire federal government. "And that really goes to her leadership and a great credit to her," Volberding said.

Election to the Senate

In 1990, after leaving the mayor's office, Feinstein ran for governor. She lost narrowly to Republican Sen. Pete Wilson. But a year later, the political climate changed with the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

Senate candidate Feinstein celebrates winning the Democratic Party primary in June 1992.
/ John O'Hara/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
John O'Hara/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Senate candidate Feinstein celebrates winning the Democratic Party primary in June 1992.

When law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual misconduct when they worked together, members of the Judiciary Committee, includingDemocratic Sen. Howell Heflin of Alabama, questioned Hill's integrity and motivation.

"Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?" Sen. Heflin drawled.

Feinstein used those widely criticized hearings as a springboard to the U.S. Senate.

"Many people took a look at that all-male Judiciary Committee and frankly felt they badly botched the job," Feinstein said campaigning in 1992. Her platform included writing a woman's right to an abortion into federal law.

"The Congress must pass it and the president must sign it. And if he vetoes it, we must override that veto," she said.

Feinstein won the Senate seat, making history as part of the so-called Year of the Woman.

In Washington, she advocated gun control, overcoming stiff odds to pass a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994. Later that year she almost lost reelection. But she developed a reputation as a workhorse, someone who did her homework, and wasn't afraid to rock the boat.

Report on torture by the CIA

In 2014, over objections from the Obama administration, she took to the Senate floor to release a comprehensive report on torture by the CIA following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Releasing this report is an important step to restore our values and show the world that we are, in fact, a just and lawful society," Feinstein said.

The 500-page summary report by the Intelligence Committee Feinstein chaired revealed in stark detail CIA mistreatment of prisoners, including things like waterboarding and sleep deprivation.

Tom Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive at George Washington University, says the investigation Feinstein directed made the intelligence community accountable.

"I think the Senate torture report was probably the high point of Sen. Feinstein's entire Senate career," Blanton said.

Reelection at age 85

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 put Feinstein's brand of bipartisanship out of step within her own party. Democrats who hoped Feinstein would step aside for a new generation of candidates were disappointed — even angry — when she sought and won another six-year term in 2018 at the age of 85. Some news reports cited apparent memory lapses.

Feinstein speaks with reporters in 2016.
/ Al Drago/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Al Drago/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Imag
Feinstein speaks with reporters in 2016.

In the fifth year of her final term in office, a serious bout of shingles forced Feinstein to miss nearly 100 votes while she recovered at home in San Francisco.

When she returned to Washington almost three months later, she appeared even more frail with lingering side effects from shingles that limited her ability to work.

Former aide Jim Lazarus believes her reasons for staying in office, rather than enjoying retirement, were intensely personal.

"I just don't think she could see what else to do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. She felt well enough and alert enough and strong enough to serve," Lazarus said.

A role model for women in government

Feinstein's most enduring legacy may be opening more doors for women in politics. She was San Francisco's first female mayor, although she wasn't always as much of a feminist as advocates would have liked.

But Malia Cohen, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before being elected to the state Board of Equalization, remembers meeting Feinstein at City Hall on a third grade field trip where Feinstein told her class one of them could be mayor one day.

"I believe that I'm standing on her shoulders. And I wouldn't be here without her leadership," Cohen said.

Feinstein's third husband Richard Blum died in 2022. She is survived by her daughter Katherine, a now-retired judge who served on the state superior court in San Francisco.

While some Democrats felt Dianne Feinstein was too moderate and stayed in office too long, she'll also be remembered as a woman who led her city through a moment of extraordinary grief and became an effective champion for important national issues in the U.S. Senate.

Details of her replacement remain unknown

Earlier this month, Gov. Newsom reiterated on NBC his pledge to appoint a Black woman to fill the Senate seat if a vacancy occurred. However, Newsom added that he would not appoint anyone currently running for the seat and would see a placeholder until voters could decide next year. House Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff are declared candidates. Lee is a Black woman but has publicly rejected suggestions she would serve as a placeholder.

-- Kelsey Snell contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 KQED

Scott Shafer