Sen. Dianne Feinstein dies at 90

Chicago
By Chicago 17 Min Read

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a centrist Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1992 in the “Year of the Woman” and broke gender barriers throughout her long career in local and national politics, has died. She was 90.

Feinstein died on Thursday night at her home in Washington, D.C., her office confirmed on Friday.

President Joe Biden, a fellow Democrat, called Feinstein “a pioneering American,” a “true trailblazer” and a “cherished friend” for him and first lady Jill Biden.

“Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties,” Biden said in a statement. “She’s made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations.”

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. echoed the president’s sentiments in a statement, saying Feinstein spent her time in office “fighting for causes that many overlooked.”

“Dianne was my friend and seatmate on the Senate Judiciary Committee for more than twenty years,” Durbin said. “She never backed away from the toughest political battles—she was always dignified and always effective. The Senate and those of us privileged to serve with her have lost a woman whose public service wrote an inspiring chapter in the history of our nation.”

Feinstein, the oldest sitting U.S. senator, was a passionate advocate for liberal priorities important to her state — including environmental protection, reproductive rights and gun control — but was also known as a pragmatic lawmaker who reached out to Republicans and sought middle ground.

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Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. shakes hands with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-C.A., at a business hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill May 10, 2023 in Washington.

Drew Angerer/Getty

“Dianne Feinstein was one of the most dedicated, passionate Senators in our nation’s history,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) in a statement.

Quigley said Feinstein paved the way for progress as the first woman to chair the Senate Intelligence Committee and the author of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban. He also praised her work to end prisoner torture following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

“Her vast array of accomplishments embodies the notion of refusing to accept the status quo and pursue justice,” Quigley said. “Her expertise and insight will be missed, but will be forever etched into our history. I am hopeful that her legacy serves as inspiration to young women across our country.”

Feinstein was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and became its first female president in 1978, the year Mayor George Moscone was gunned down alongside Supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. Feinstein found Milk’s body.

After Moscone’s death, Feinstein became San Francisco’s first female mayor. In the Senate, she was one of California’s first two female senators, the first woman to head the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first woman to serve as the Judiciary committee’s top Democrat.

Although Feinstein was not always embraced by the feminist movement, her experiences colored her outlook through her five decades in politics.

“I recognize that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right,” she told The Associated Press in 2005, as the Judiciary Committee prepared to hold hearings on President George W. Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

“So I must tell you, I try to look out for women’s rights. I also try to solve problems as I perceive them, with legislation, and reaching out where I can, and working across the aisle,” she said.

Feinstein’s chief of staff, James Sauls, called her “a force of nature who made an incredible impact” on California and on the nation and said she “left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary.”

“Her passing is 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,” Sauls said in a statement.

Feinstein’s tendency for bipartisanship helped her notch legislative wins throughout her career. But it also proved to be a liability in her later years in Congress, as her state became more liberal and as the Senate and the electorate became increasingly polarized.

A fierce debater who did not suffer fools, the California senator was long known for her verbal zingers and sharp comebacks when challenged on the issues about which she was most fervent. But she lost that edge in her later years in the Senate, as her health visibly declined and she often became confused when answering questions or speaking publicly. In February 2023, she said she would not run for a sixth term the next year. And within weeks of that announcement, she was absent from the Senate for more than two months as she recovered from a bout of shingles.

Amid the concerns about her health, Feinstein stepped down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel after the 2020 elections, just as her party was about to take the majority. In 2023, she said she would not serve as the Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.

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Then-Democratic U.S. senatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein flashes the victory sign at a rally at democratic headquarters in Pasadena, California on Thursday, Oct. 29, 1992.

Mark J. Terrill/AP file

One of Feinstein’s most significant legislative accomplishments was early in her career, when the Senate approved her amendment to ban manufacturing and sales of certain types of assault weapons as part of a crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. Though the assault weapons ban expired 10 years later and was never renewed or replaced, it was a poignant win after her career had been significantly shaped by gun violence.

Feinstein remembered finding Milk’s body, her finger slipping into a bullet hole as she felt for a pulse. It was a story she would retell often in the years ahead as she pushed for stricter gun control measures.

She had little patience for Republicans and others who opposed her on that issue, though she was often challenged. In 1993, during debate on the assault weapons ban, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, accused her of having an insufficient knowledge of guns and the gun control issue.

Feinstein spoke fiercely of the violence she’d lived through in San Francisco and retorted: ‘’Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.”

Two decades later, after 20 children and six educators were killed in a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas similarly challenged Feinstein during debate on legislation that would have permanently banned the weapons.

“I’m not a sixth grader,” Feinstein snapped back at the much younger Cruz — a moment that later went viral. She added: “It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here a long time.”

Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco after the 1978 slayings of Moscone and Milk, leading the city during one of the most turbulent periods in its history. Even her critics credited Feinstein with a calming influence, and she won reelection on her own to two four-year terms.

With her success and growing recognition statewide came visibility on the national political stage.

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Dianne Feinstein, then the mayor of San Francisco, carries a candle as she leads an estimated 15,000 marchers during a march in memory of slain Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in San Francisco, Nov. 28, 1979.

Paul Sakuma/AP file

In 1984, Feinstein was viewed as a vice presidential possibility for Walter Mondale but faced questions about the business dealings of her husband, Richard Blum. In 1990, she used news footage of her announcement of the assassinations of Moscone and Milk in a television ad that helped her win the Democratic nomination for California governor, making her the first female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the state’s history.

Although she narrowly lost the general election to Republican Pete Wilson, the stage was set for her election to the Senate two years later to fill the Senate seat Wilson had vacated to run for governor.

Feinstein campaigned jointly with Barbara Boxer, who was running for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, and both won, benefiting from positive news coverage and excitement over their historic race. California had never had a female U.S. senator, and female candidates and voters had been galvanized by the Supreme Court hearings in which the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Anita Hill about her sexual harassment allegations against nominee Clarence Thomas.

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Democratic senatorial candidate Dianne Feinstein on the campaign trail in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles, Monday, Sept. 7, 1992.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

Feinstein was appointed to the Judiciary panel and eventually the Senate Intelligence Committee, becoming the chairperson in 2009. She was the first woman to lead the intelligence panel, a high-profile perch that gave her a central oversight role over U.S. intelligence controversies, setbacks and triumphs, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to leaks about National Security Agency surveillance.

Under Feinstein’s leadership, the intelligence committee conducted a wide-ranging, five-year investigation into CIA interrogation techniques during President George W. Bush’s administration, including waterboarding of terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons. The resulting 6,300-page “torture report” concluded among other things that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not provide key evidence in the hunt for bin Laden. A 525-page executive summary was released in late 2014, but the rest of the report has remained classified.

The Senate investigation was full of intrigue at the time, including documents that mysteriously disappeared and accusations traded between the Senate and the CIA that the other was stealing information. The drama was captured in a 2019 movie about the investigation called “The Report,” and actor Annette Bening was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Feinstein.

In the years since, Feinstein has continued to push aggressively for eventual declassification of the report.

“It’s my very strong belief that one day this report should be declassified,” Feinstein said. “This must be a lesson learned: that torture doesn’t work.”

Feinstein sometimes frustrated liberals by adopting moderate or hawkish positions that put her at odds with the left wing of the Democratic Party, as well as with the more liberal Boxer, who retired from the Senate in 2017. Feinstein defended the Obama administration’s expansive collection of Americans’ phone and email records as necessary for protecting the country, for example, even as other Democratic senators voiced protests. “It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein said then.

That tension escalated during Donald Trump’s presidency, when many Democrats had little appetite for compromise. Feinstein became the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel in 2016 and led her party’s messaging through three Supreme Court nominations — a role that angered liberal advocacy groups that wanted to see a more aggressive partisan in charge.

Feinstein closed out confirmation hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett with an embrace of Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a public thanks to him for a job well done. “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said at the end of the hearing.

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Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-C.A., attend the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 15, 2020.

Tom Williams/Getty

Liberal advocacy groups that had fiercely opposed Barrett’s nomination to replace the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were furious and called for her to step down from the committee leadership.

A month later, Feinstein announced she would remain on the committee but step down as the top Democrat. The senator, then 87 years old, did not say why. In a statement, she said she would “continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years.”

Feinstein was born on June 22, 1933. Her father, Leon Goldman, was a prominent surgeon and medical school professor in San Francisco, but her mother was an abusive woman with a violent temper that was often directed at Feinstein and her two younger sisters.

Feinstein graduated from Stanford University in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in history. She married young and was a divorced single mother of her daughter, Katherine, in 1960, at a time when such a status was still unusual.

In 1961, Feinstein was appointed by then-Gov. Pat Brown to the women’s parole board, on which she served before running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Typical of the era, much of the early coverage of her entrance into public life focused on her appearance, and she was invariably described as stunning, tall, slender and raven-haired.

Feinstein’s second husband, Bert Feinstein, was 19 years older than she, but she described the marriage as “a 10” and kept his name even after his death from cancer in 1978. In 1980, she married investment banker Richard Blum, and thanks to his wealth, she was one of the richest members of the Senate. He died in February 2022.

In addition to her daughter, Feinstein has a granddaughter, Eileen, and three stepchildren.

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