By Miriam Raftery
Photo, left, by Ron Logan: Senator Dianne Feinstein addressed California Democratic Convention in San Diego
September 29, 2023 (Washington D.C.) – U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who represented California for over three decades and served as a trailblazer for women in politics, died last night at her home in Washington, D.C. Vaulted into the spotlight when dual assassinations elevated her to Mayor of San Francisco, she later became one of the most powerful women in America, chairing the Senate Intelligence Committee and serving as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
She fought for women’s rights, gun control, and LGTBQ rights from AIDS funding to gay marriage. She led an investigation into CIA torture and demanded reforms, and once said the vote she most regretted was supporting the Iraq War initiated by President George W. Bush. She was, however, viewed as a political moderate,also supporting law and order measures, the death penalty, and a strong national defense.
Her staff issued a statement on X (formerly Twitter) calling the senior Democrat’s passing “a great loss for so many, from those who loved and cared for her to the people of California that she dedicated her life to serving. Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was just and right. At the same time, she was always willing to work with anyone, even those she disagreed with, if it meant bettering the lives of Californians or the betterment of our nation. There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother…She left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary.”
Feinstein cast her last vote, an effort to stop a government shutdown, yesterday morning. Despite failing health, she had pledged to complete her term of office, but had announced she would not seek reelection next year, opening the door for a new generation of leadership for California on Capitol Hill.
Governor Gavin Newsom will appoint a temporary replacement to fill the Senate vacancy, but has said he will not choose any of the candidates running in the 2024 election—representatives Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee.
President Joe Biden ordered flags flown at half-staff to honor Feinstein's memory, calling her a "pioneering American and true trailblazer." He added, "In San Francisco, she showed enormous poise and courage in the wake of tragedy, and became a powerful voice for American values. In the United States Senate, she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons, also making her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties. Senator Feinstein was a role model for so many Americans and she had an immense impact on younger female leaders for whom she generously opened doors. She was a historic figure, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations."
Former Secretary of State Hiliary Clinton said Feinstein “blazed a trail for women in politics and found a life’s calling in public service. I’ll miss her greatly as a friend and colleague, and send my condolences to all who loved her.”
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said,”Dianne Feinstein, right from the start, was an icon for women in politics.”
Born Dianne Emiel Goldman in San Francisco on June 22,1933, her father was a Jewish refugee from Poland who became a surgeon and professor at the University of California, San Francisco’s medical school. Her mother, born in Russia, was a Russian Orthodox Catholic. Her parents were not only different religions, but also members of opposite political parties – one a Democrat, the other a Republican. Feinstein has attributed her reputation as a political moderate to her upbringing. She also suffered abuse at the hands of her mother, an alcoholic.
After graduated from a Catholic High School where she was the only Jewish student, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford University, where she served as student body president. A year later, in 1955, she eloped with prosecutor Jack Berman. They had a daughter, Katherine, but divorced in 1959, so Feinstein became a single mother. The next year, Governor Pat Brown appointed her to serve on the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole, beginning her lifelong public service.
In 1962 she married Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon. Later she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and became the board’s Chair. Her second husband died in 1978.
Two months later, the city’s Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a prominent gay rights advocate, were assassinated. A shocked Feinstein found their bodies and announced the brutal murders to the world. The tragedy cemented her lifelong commitment to fight against gun violence.
Under San Francisco’s laws of succession, Feinstein became the first woman mayor and later won election in her own right. As Mayor, she led renovation of the city’s cable cars, famously photographed riding the city’s iconic transit. She also oversaw the 1984 Democratic presidential election.
Photo, right: Mayor Dianne Feinstein aboard a San Francisco cable car, public domain image via Wikipedia
In 1980, she married Richard Blum, founder of Blum Capitol. She ran for Governor in 1990 but lost.
Watching all-male Senators grilling Anita Hill, a woman who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the Supreme Court confirmation hearing, fired up Feinstein to run for the Senate. She won a special election in 1992 and was reelected five times; in 2012 she received 7.86 million votes, the most received by any Senate candidate in history. Continuing to break glass ceilings, she became the first woman to chair the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee.
“I recognize that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right,” she told the Associated Press in 2005.
As the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, she grilled nominees for courts including Supreme Court nominees, famously opposing the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh after a woman accused him of raping her when he was in a college fraternity.
Photo, left: Senator Dianne Feinstein, 2018 official portrait
She authored the assault weapons ban signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1994, an act credited with dramatically reducing mass shootings and saving lives until Republicans blocked renewal of the act in 2004.
Long a champion of women’s reproductive freedoms, Feinstein coauthored the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2023, an effort to guarantee access to abortion and reproductive healthcare for women nationwide, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Ironically, however, Feinstein voted for the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative appointed by Donald Trump who later voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and allow states to ban or restrict abortion.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) issued this statement on Feinstein’s passing: “Senator Dianne Feinstein was the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate. While her 30-year career was not without controversy or criticism, her work on the Violence Against Women Act, gay marriage, gun control, and a long list of legislation illustrates what can happen when women get elected to office. We hope her legacy inspires others to check women’s names on a ballot – or envision their own on one.”
Photo, right, by Miriam Raftery: Senator Feinstein speaks with reporters at 2007 Senate hearing she chaired in San Diego on the need for greater wildfire protection and firefighting resources
She also fought battles for Californians, including San Diego County residents. After the deadly and devastating 2007 San Diego firestorms including the Witch, Paradise and Harris wildfires, Senator Feinstein chaired a Congressional hearing in San Diego to investigate wildfire prevention, including local officials actions, a hearing covered by this journalist.
The Senator grilled San Diego officials and sharply criticized them for failing to provide adequate fire resources for the region. "People have to understand there will eventually be loss of life on a massive scale if nothing happens,"she warned after learning the city did not have nearly the number of fire stations required to meet federal standards in Rancho Bernardo, where many homes were destroyed by the wildfire flames, and hearing San Diego's fire chief testify that he lacked the resources needed for an appropriate response to those fires.
In February 2022, her long-time husband, Blum, died. Feinstein suffered her own physical decline, taking a three month leave of absence in early 2023 due to a severe case of singles complicated by encephalitis. She showed signs of cognitive impairment, at times forgetting names and appearing to be prompted by aides as she cast votes in the Judiciary Committee.
Even some Democratic colleagues called on her to resign, but she resolved to complete her term, in part because of fears that Republicans would refuse to seat anyone appointed to replace her on the Judiciary Committee, an action that could leave important positions including judge seats unfilled until the next election.
“I continue to work and get results for California,” Feinstein said in a statement upon her return to Washington after the shingles bout.
Her strong sense of ethics pervaded her long tenure in office, exemplified when she led an investigation in 2014 into abuses by the Central Intelligence Committee (CIA) of prisoners during the Iraq war, a war she had voted for but later came to regret supporting. Her investigation led to a voluminous report and reforms.
“History will judge us by our commitment to a just society governed by law,” she said at the time, “and the willingness to face an ugly truth and say ‘never again.’