Dianne Feinstein Dies at 90. ‘Charted Her Own Path’ in a Career Born in the Political Violence of the ’70s

The longest-serving California senator had a legendary political career spanning seven decades.

PUBLISHED SEP 29, 2023 12:00 A.M.
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Dianne Feinstein began her career in government six years before current Gov. Gavin Newsom was born.

Dianne Feinstein began her career in government six years before current Gov. Gavin Newsom was born.   Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

A California political epoch that stretches back to the 1970s has come to an end. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving United States senator in California’s history as well as the Senate’s longest-serving woman, has died at age 90, according to a statement released by her office. She died at her residence in Washington, D.C., during the night of Sept. 28, the statement said.

On Feb. 14 Feinstein had announced that her current term would be her last. The Democratic senator at that time said she intended to serve out her term, set to expire on Jan. 3, 2025.

She was at that time already the oldest current member of the Senate—beating out Iowa’s Chuck Grassley by 76 days—and had she retired on her announced schedule, would have been the fourth-oldest senator in U.S. history. South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond holds the record, retiring in 2003 at age 100.

In a statement Sept. 29, Gov. Gavin Newsom called Feinstein a “political giant.”

“She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation. And she was a fighter—for the city, the state and the country she loved,” Newsom said. “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.

“There is simply nobody who possessed the strength, gravitas, and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein. Jennifer and I are deeply saddened by her passing, and we will mourn with her family in this difficult time.”

Feinstein was first elected to the Senate in a 1992 special election to fill the seat vacated by Republican Pete Wilson, who had defeated her in the race for governor two years earlier. She beat Republican John Seymour, the incumbent appointed to the seat by Wilson.

A Pioneer for Women in Politics

She was elected on the same day as fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer, but because Feinstein won a special election, she took office right away in November, while Boxer had to wait until January. That meant Feinstein became the first woman U.S. senator from California. 

When Feinstein and Boxer were elected, there were only two other elected women in the Senate: Kansas Republican Nancy Kassebaum and Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski. A third woman, Jocelyn Birch Burdick—a North Dakota Democrat—had been appointed to fill the seat left open by her husband, who had died that September. But Burdick did not run for a full term and left office after four months.

In 2023, 31 years later, 25 Senators—one of every four—are women, 15 Democrats, nine Republicans and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, who recently left the Democratic party to become an independent. And of course the vice-president, who serves as president of the Senate and casts all tiebreaking votes, is also a woman—former California Senator Kamala Harris.

Feinstein was also the second-longest serving Jewish senator, behind only Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who served 36 years before retiring in 2014 at age 80.

Feinstein graduated from Stanford University in 1955 and six years later, at age 28 and recently divorced from her first husband, was appointed by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to the state’s parole board for women. The position immersed her in the lives of female offenders and, according to one biographer, helped to shape her support for abortion rights and opposition to capital punishment. 

She was appointed in 1967 to San Francisco’s Advisory Committee on Adult Detention, and two years later ran a longshot campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In a surprise upset, she topped the field in the November election to become the city’s (and county’s) first woman to serve as president of the board.

After a failed 1971 run for mayor (she placed third in an election won by incumbent Joseph Alioto), Feinstein was reelected Board of Supervisors president in 1973 and tried again for the mayor’s job in 1975, only to place third again. That election was won by State Senator George Moscone, whose pioneeringly progressive agenda would earn him the sobriquet "The People's Mayor."

A Career Forged in an Era of Terror

The 1970s, when Feinstein’s political career was born, were a tense and dangerous era in San Francisco, leading one FBI terrorism expert to describe the city as the “Belfast of North America,” likening the politically radical and violent climate there to the strife-torn city in Northern Ireland.

In 1971 the Black Liberation Army, a violent urban guerilla group that splintered off from the Black Panthers, murdered a San Francisco police officer. The BLA said the killing was retaliation for the killing of Black Panther George Jackson, who was slain in a prison escape attempt. In 1974, the racially motivated “Zebra Killings” terrorized San Francisco, carried out by an extremist sect of “Black Muslims” calling themselves the “Death Angels.” In a period of about six months they murdered 16 people. The victims were all white, but otherwise the attacks appeared random.

The leftist radical Weather Underground group carried out several bombings in San Francisco, and in nearby Berkeley another, previously unknown “revolutionary” faction known as the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnapped Patricia Hearst, heiress to the Hearst family of media magnates. Hearst and other members of the SLA were later captured in San Francisco’s Mission District in 1975, after Hearst apparently joined her captors, adopting the name “Tania” and robbing a bank in the Sunset District armed with a machine gun.

In December of 1976, the violence hit home, literally, for Feinstein when her house on Lyon Street was attacked with a potentially deadly bomb placed in a flower box. Fortunately, the bomb was a dud and caused no damage or injuries. A self-described anti-capitalist revolutionary group called the New World Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the attack, as well as for 70 other bombings in the city from 1974 to 1978. The radical group also fired shots through a window of Feinstein’s vacation home.

Those incidents were just a few of the tumultuous events that rocked San Francisco in the years that Feinstein presided over the Board of Supervisors. But it was another horrifying episode of violence that brought her to national prominence—and finally put her in the mayor’s office. 

The Double Assassination That Made Feinstein Mayor

November 27, 1978, saw the most shocking act of political violence in San Francisco's history, and one of the worst in the history of California. Dan White, a conservative member of the Board of Supervisors who had resigned 17 days earlier then asked to be reappointed only to be rejected by Moscone, entered City Hall through a lower-floor window, climbed the stairs, and shot the mayor dead in his office.

In the same rampage, White also assassinated Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist who just 11 months earlier was elected as the first openly gay member of the Board. White and Milk had become fierce political rivals. Milk opposed White’s reinstatement to the Board.

Feinstein said she called out to White as he walked past her office that morning only for him to ignore her. Moments later, after hearing the gunshots, she rushed to Milk’s office and discovered his body.

As board president, it was her job to inform the public of the tragedy. Feinstein held a dramatic and indelible press conference announcing the deaths of Moscone and Milk. Her position as president elevated her to the job of the acting mayor of San Francisco immediately, but it was Feinstein’s press conference, carried by news outlets across the country, that made her nationally famous. In a strange twist of fate, earlier that morning Feinstein told reporters that she would not run for reelection to the Board of Supervisors, which was taken as a signal that she was retiring from politics. Instead, the devastating assassinations launched her on the trajectory to what became her lengthy and, in many ways, legendary career.

She won the mayoral election in 1979, the first woman to do so in San Francisco, and stayed in office until her second full term ran out in January of 1988 (her successor, Art Agnos, had barely survived being shot by the “Zebra Killers” in 1973). Her assassination press conference became a centerpiece of her campaign ads which, according to a Los Angeles Times report, were described by political experts as “among the most effective they have ever seen.”

Feinstein’s Assault Weapons Ban

The terrible circumstances under which she first became mayor gave Feinstein the defining cause of her political career—gun control. After the New World Liberation Front shot out her window, Feinstein herself obtained a concealed carry firearms permit and by her own admission took to carrying a gun. But she said she let the permit expire once it became clear that the terrorist group was no longer a threat. As mayor in 1982 she pushed a citywide ban on handguns through the Board of Supervisors, only to see it quickly overturned by a state appeals court. At that time, San Francisco had California’s highest murder rate per capita, with handguns involved in about 75 percent of all murders there.

Almost as soon as she became a senator, Feinstein went to work on what became her signature, though far from her only, legislative achievement: the 1994 ban on assault weapons. The federal ban expired in 2004, however, and Feinstein worked to reinstate it ever since. As recently as 2021, Feinstein, in collaboration with David Cicilline, a House rep from Rhode Island, introduced an updated bill to “ban the sale, transfer, manufacture and importation of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines,” of the type used in (according to a Rand Corporation study) one-third of all public mass shooting incidents.

In Later Years, Not a Favorite of Progressives

Feinstein was also the force behind landmark environmental legislation, much of which benefited California directly. In her first year, 1994, she played a key role in pushing through a massive package of desert protection laws that had been initiated by her predecessor as California Senator, Alan Cranston. The package established the Joshua Tree and Death Valley National Parks, as well as the Mojave National Preserve.

As a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she put together a $250 million federal purchase of California forest land that protected old-growth redwood trees from the logging industry. And in 2009 she was the driving force in the Senate behind a bill to restore water flow to the perpetually drought-stricken San Joaquin Valley.

But even her environmental record was mixed. In 2016 she joined with Republican Kevin McCarthy, then his party’s leader in the House, to override protection for endangered species of fish in a San Joaquin Valley water bill. The move led to a falling-out with Boxer, who slammed the Feinstein-McCarthy addition to the bill as “so wrong it is shocking.”

In fact, Feinstein in the latter stages of her Senate career fell sharply out of favor with her party’s progressive wing, a development that seemed to be exemplified by a moment during the 2020 hearings to confirm Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. Barrett was expected by supporters of abortion rights to provide a vote that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which established abortion as a constitutional right. And sure enough, in the 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, she did exactly that.  

The hearings were rushed by Senate Republicans to end before the 2020 presidential election in which they feared Republican Donald Trump would come out the loser, closing off the chance to appoint new, conservative, anti-abortion justices. At the close of the hearings, Feinstein was seen warmly embracing Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham—a staunch abortion-rights foe and supporter of Barrett—and was heard telling him, “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in.”

She also said that she was “impressed” with Barrett during the hearings. Her statements and hugging of Graham led to calls from other Democrats and activists for her to step aside from her role in party leadership, and from the Senate. Nonetheless, Feinstein ultimately joined all Senate Democrats in voting "nay" on Barrett's nomination.

She also stated that she was opposed to abolishing the filibuster—a Senate rule that effectively requires 60 votes, rather than a simple 51-vote majority, to pass any legislation. 

“I’ve been here for 26 years [and] found it stood well for the body,” Feinstein said in 2020 (she had actually been in the Senate nearly 28 years at the time. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

The filibuster rule has been used by Republicans to stifle legislation pushed by Democrats including President Joe Biden. Biden himself has advocated at least modifying the filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation.

‘A Lifetime of Firsts’

Nonetheless, when she announced her pending retirement in February—effectively ending a career in public service that spanned seven decades—longtime colleagues and political observers lauded her toughness and ability to overcome long odds, starting with her 1969 Board of Supervisors election victory which at the time was seen as a stunning upset.

“Hers is a lifetime of firsts at a time when women were to be seen and not heard. And steely is a good word to describe her. She has always had a steely resolve to do what was right,” former San Francisco congressional representative Jackie Speier told the San Francisco ChronicleSpeier herself was a victim of political violence in 1978 when as an aide to Rep. Leo Ryan she was shot five times by members of the People’s Temple cult that started in San Francisco then relocated to Jonestown, Guyana. Ryan was killed in the attack which took place just 10 days before the assassinations of Moscone and Milk.

“At the same time, there is a sweetness, thoughtfulness and generosity to her,” Speier told the Chronicle. “She’s always charted her own path.”

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