upper waypoint

'I Get Things Done' Dianne Feinstein on Her History, Political 'Style' and the Future of Compromise in the Senate

28:35
Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein with KQED Political Breakdown hosts Marisa Lagos and Scott Shafer.  (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Running for a sixth term in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein talks with Scott and Marisa about how her childhood influenced her career, considering retirement before the assassination of Harvey Milk, the bill she wants to write if re-elected, and what’s she’s learned from Kamala Harris.

View the full episode transcript.

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Marisa Lagos: From KQED. Hey. Hey. Everyone. From KQED Public Radio, this is Political Breakdown. I’m Marisa Lagos. Part of KQED’s Politics Posse.

Scott Shafer: And I’m Scott Shafer, KQED senior politics editor. And today, she’s represented California in the U.S. Senate for 26 years. And now Dianne Feinstein wants voters to give her another six.

Marisa Lagos:
That’s right. California’s senior senator is here with us on the Breakdown just 12 days before the midterm elections. And we have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get right to it. Senator Feinstein. Welcome to the Breakdown.

Dianne Feinstein: Thanks, Marisa.

Sponsored

Marisa Lagos: We really appreciate you being here. And we want to talk about really a remarkable life you’ve had. But one thing that struck me is as we went through and were reading about your history is really what a trailblazer you’ve been as a woman. I mean, you went to Stanford in the 1950s. You were elected to the Board of Supervisors in, I believe, 1969. I guess I’m just curious if you could kind of put in context how that life that you’ve lived has shaped your worldview and how you carry that with you, as times have changed dramatically for women in the U.S. in some ways, and in other ways they haven’t.

Dianne Feinstein: Well, there’s an interesting thing, because I think it goes back to my childhood. I was the oldest of three daughters, and so a number of responsibilities fell on me. And I got used to responsibility very early: before school, after school. And I grew to enjoy it, strangely enough. And then at Stanford, I took a course in American political thought, and the final was all composition. And I wrote my heart out and I got an A-plus. And I thought that said something to me about my ability to cope in this arena. And then I did a year’s graduate work with the Coro Foundation, which is indigenous to this area, and did a preliminary masterplan for the city of South San Francisco, was assigned to two labor unions, the DA’s office. We did a big report on the post-conviction phases in the administration of criminal justice. And then Pat Brown appointed me to the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole. So I got a good dose of criminal justice and what was happening. I then went and ran for the board.

Scott Shafer: Well, let’s let me stop you there, because we want to get to that. I want to get to that. But I want to ask you about the things you just talked about. So as Marisa said, you were, there were probably not a lot of women at Stanford at that time. I know Sandra Day O’Connor was there. [Yes.] Roughly around that time and talked about how hard it was for her after graduating law school to even get an interview, much less a job. But how did those years affect your thinking? I mean, being a woman, being subjected to, you know, the barriers that men didn’t face in those times?

Dianne Feinstein:
Well, that’s right. And I ran into pretty much the same thing that the justice ran into. As a matter of fact, I was just thinking about that today. And I was very often not hired, and not very often, maybe two or three times. That was very often.

Scott Shafer:
And you think that’s because you’re a woman?

Dianne Feinstein:
Yeah, I do think, because I think my grades were certainly good enough. And in any event, at the time, the League of Women Voters was very active. I was somewhat active in it. I began to get active in community groups and I found that this is really what I wanted to do. And so I ran for the Board of Supervisors and was very lucky. This is a cute story. I topped the ticket. And as you know, when you top the ticket, you’re president of the board, you get the most votes. You and this was city. This was the citywide. You get the most votes. And John Barbagelata, who came in number two.

Scott Shafer
: Who was very conservative.

Dianne Feinstein:
Yes. Who wrote a Chronicle op-ed piece that I am untrained, I should turn it down and accept the second position. I thought that doesn’t make very good sense.

Marisa Lagos: Tell it that to you or just put it in the Chronicle?
Dianne Feinstein: It was in writing. I thought it was a Chronicle. I hope I’m right.

Marisa Lagos: But he didn’t have…

Dianne Feinstein: Long time ago.

Marisa Lagos: He didn’t come talk to you about it? [No.] Oh, interesting.

Dianne Feinstein: And in any event, I got seasoned pretty quickly and went on and served nine years on the board was three times The president of the boar. Happened to been there on that terrible day, November 22nd, which is upcoming. When Harvey Milk walked by the office and I said, ‘Harvey,’ no, excuse me. When Dan White walked by the office, it was my first day back. My husband and I had gone on a vacation and just came back and uh, Harvey didn’t, Dan didn’t stop. And I heard the door slam and I heard the shots and everybody was gone. And I remember this so well. And it’s still traumati. Because I tried to get a pulse in his wrist and put my finger in a bullet hole, and it was clear he was dead. And that changed the world.

Scott Shafer
: And I want to just ask you one thing, because you… There were reports that that day before that happened, you decided to give up politics.

Dianne Feinstein: That’s true.

Scott Shafer: Yeah. So what made what brought you to that decision, which obviously events overtook that decision? But what what was it that made you think, you know, I’m not gonnna…?

Dianne Feinstein: What I decided was I was not going to run for another term of the board, that that was that.

Scott Shafer: Because?

Dianne Feinstein: Well, my husband had died. I remarried, I had a daughter, and I just thought enough was enough. It’s still very traumatic for me to look back on, candidly, because those assassinations were everything that was not supposed to happen. And I would give up anything if they had not happened. And once they happen, they impact everything. Everything you do, everything the city is, and the worry over the city, because of the hatred. You had the first openly gay public official killed by a former police officer and firefighter, who was sort of America’s all-American boy.

Marisa Lagos: Yeah, very handsome.

Dianne Feinstein: Yeah, and a beautiful wife and small child and really hard. Really hard. And anyway, I don’t often talk of this, so you have to put up with it.

Marisa Lagos: No, we’re glad. I mean, I think this is it is a pivotal moment for you and your life and also, obviously San Francisco and talking to people who are around you. I mean, somebody pointed out to me that, you know, that day you saw political differences literally end in gunfire. And I’m curious if that, if you think that has sort of changed, or did change, your approach to governing and to politics. Because I think one thing we’ve heard in the campaign here and now is that you can be too collegial. I mean, is that.. Obviously there’s gun control and other sort of policy things that maybe came out of that, and some of the other events of that era. But did that affect the way you kind of want to approach people, regardless of their positions?

Dianne Feinstein: No. I mean, I am the way I am. And I welcome collegiality and I welcome getting along and I share thoughts and ideas. And I don’t like the histrionics that have got into this, because… And then, well, the as you know, I became mayor and was mayor for, I guess, three terms. And the first two years were very hard. And then it kind of settled down. And we were able to put the bricks of the city back together again. That was a wonderful experience.

Scott Shafer: Was there a way in which you felt, like suddenly you were mayor… There had been a progressive mayor. The sort of the left, the progressives in San Francisco were so excited about Harvey Milk and George Moscone. Like, did that put you in an awkward position at all?

Dianne Feinstein: Yes. And I’ll tell you why. I had run for mayor and I was defeated. And I was convinced I would never be mayor. And so.

Scott Shafer: And you did you lose to George Moscone?

Dianne Feinstein:
Yes.

Scott Shafer: Yeah.

Marisa Lagos: And you said we talked earlier that you said after that point that you were going to leave politics. I mean, did your losses impact that decision?

Dianne Feinstein:
Yeah, I think they did. I think they did. You know, when you’re young, things impact you differently than when you get a lot of seasoning, so to speak. And it really did impact me. As a matter of fact, the first thing that my husband and I, I mean, the last time I ran for mayor, my husband supported George.

Scott Shafer
: What?! [Dick Blum?]

Dianne Feinstein:
Yeah.

Scott Shafer: Over you? Oh, you weren’t married.

Dianne Feinstein: LAUGH. No, we weren’t married. [That would’ve been a short marriage!] But he was a big Moscone supporter, and he headed his fiscal advisory committee. And subsequently, we met, after my husband died.

Marisa Lagos
: And the rest is history.

Dianne Feinstein:
The rest is history.

Marisa Lagos
: We’re going to take a short break. We are with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. When we get back, we will continue this conversation. You’re listening to Political Breakdown from KQED Public Radio.

Scott Shafer:
And welcome back to Political Breakdown. I’m Scott Shafer along with Marisa Lagos. We’re here with U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Before the break, we were talking about the terrible years when there were two assassinations in San Francisco. And there’s that iconic film, video of you, announcing to the world at City Hall. I think, seared in anybody’s mind who has seen it before. And I just wondering, when you think back to that moment, what were you what was going through your mind?

Dianne Feinstein:
What happens to me is everything else blocks out, except what I am doing and what I need to do. So it’s it’s a phenomenon, I can’t explain what happens, but… I can just perform. I can just keep going. And it’s not by will. I know that. But it happens that way. And I think over time, it’s served me in good stead, because when I’ve had setbacks and these assassinations, I mean, I wouldn’t trade anything for them. They’re terrible. You know, it’s just it’s awful what it does to family and spouses and the city and the trauma and the gay community. And this was the first openly gay public official in America. And I remember leaning over his body and getting a pulse and everybody else was gone. And I thought, oh, my God, how can this be? You know, this is San Francisco. How can this be? But it was.

Marisa Lagos
: You can hear on that video, too, like the gasps of the reporters and just, you know, the shock of the city. I’m just curious. I mean, we are in such stratified times nationally. And I mentioned, you know, that was a very that event was clearly the center of a lot of, you know, kind of crazy things happening in San Francisco. There was Jonestown. There were other events. Do you worry now about sort of where we’re at nationally?

Dianne Feinstein: Well, I do worry where we’re at nationally. Because there’s what I’ve learned over time is people are fragile. They may not appear to be so, but certain things inside of them break, and they do things that they never thought they would ever do. And one of the things that you so need is a president that brings people together. The beauty of this nation is our diversity. We are many different people. We walk to the sound of different drummers. And what a president does is chart a course that is acceptable for everybody and in so doing, brings people together. And this is not happening. So I do worry about the country, because we are very diverse. We have many different people, many races, creeds, colors, backgrounds. What makes America great. But it also makes it vulnerable.

Scott Shafer
: We’ve, we had Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom on a few weeks ago, and we asked him this question. And I want to ask you as well. You know, everybody in public life has sort of an image, and sometimes the image is accurate and sometimes it doesn’t quite square with the reality or the way they think of themselves. And for you. You know, I think people see you as sort of, just to use a shorthand, Pacific Heights wealthy, somebody who’s sort of above everything. Somebody who has had a, you know, easy upbringing, all those things. When you think of that image of you, and when you hear people talk about you as that kind of person, like what’s missing from that characterization?

Dianne Feinstein: You see, I’ve never heard that. And I didn’t have an easy upbringing, for reasons I’m not going to go into here. But it was not easy. And yes, I happened to marry a man who is is financially astute, let me say. But I never had a lot of money. And I worked all my life. And I think that was good for me. So I don’t consider myself a Pacific Heights matron, whatever that is. I mean, I was at work every day, at some job. And so people, I think, rush to mischaracterize. And I would say, you have to take into consideration my real history, which is my everyday history of what I do with my life and how I try to help, and what I do with people, and the kind of bills we put forward, and the successes when we have them and the failures when we have.

Marisa Lagos
: I mean, one thing that struck me looking at your biography is that you were a single mother in the late 1950s, early 1960s, before marrying your second husband. And and and then later.

Dianne Feinstein: I was married.

Marisa Lagos
: Right but you became a single mother when you divorced.

Dianne Feinstein:
That’s correct.

Marisa Lagos: Which could not have been easy at that time.

Scott Shafer: And you eloped right? You got married young. [LAUGH] Eye roll!

Dianne Feinstein: That tells you something.

Marisa Lagos
: Well, but I want to kind of fast forward. When you decided to run for Senate in 1992, and this was the time of the Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill Hillary hearings, I’ve heard you speak about seeing her testify and and how that impacted you. I mean, can you talk about that and how maybe being a single mother earlier, and being a trailblazer, as we’ve discussed, impacted that decision to run in what became the Year of the Woman. But you probably didn’t know that when you started when you decided to file your papers.

Dianne Feinstein:
No, I didn’t. I had been serving on the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole and that I did it for six years. I sat on some 5,000 cases of women convicted of felonies in state prison and set sentences. We ran a parole division at that time. I was 28 years old. And then obviously, I went on to other things. But what is the question you want to answer about me?

Marisa Lagos
: Why in that moment did you decide to run for Senate? And what did you sort of bring with you having being a woman at that time and being part of this huge class of women running, but, you know, not knowing how it was going to turn out?

Scott Shafer
: You had just run for governor.

Dianne Feinstein:
Yes. Well, that’s the I think that’s the point. I had run for governor. I missed it by two and a half percent. But I had a big constituency. So there was a lot of encouragement to not throw it all away, but to use it. And we did run for Senate. And I was very pleased to represent the state.

Scott Shafer
: And did it surprise you that two Jewish women from the Bay Area, you and Barbara Boxer, both got elected?

Dianne Feinstein: Not really.

Scott Shafer
: Really?

Dianne Feinstein:
Not really. You know, it’s like would you say, would you be surprised if two Catholics from the Bay Area got elected? Well, I don’t think so. I mean, it just it happens.

Marisa Lagos
: I just want to remind everyone that you’re listening to Political Breakdown from KQED Public Radio. I’m Marissa Lagos. We’re here today with California’s U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. I should add that we had Feinstein’s opponent for the Senate, Kevin De Leon, on on the Breakdown. You can check that episode out at KQED.org/politicalbreakdown. I think we do want to talk about your time in the Senate a little bit. You know, you sit on the Judiciary Committee. You have been very involved in the Senate Intelligence Committee. And I want to ask you about your relationship with the intelligence community, because it seems like it has changed over time. You told Mother Jones a few years ago that your decision to vote for the second Iraq war was ‘the decision I most regret,’ and that it was based on believing the CIA. [Still true.] Yeah. Did that, I don’t know, shake your belief in some of these institutions that you had really been close to for a long time?

Dianne Feinstein:
Oh, it made me very circumspect, which is helpful. And I subsequently became chairman of the committee for a period of time. And as a matter of fact, we did a 32,000 page report on torture and CIA use of torture.

Marisa Lagos
: Which you released over the objections of a president.

Dianne Feinstein:
No, we did never release the full report. [Yeah.] We were able to release a 500 page summary which has been sold in bookstores, as a matter of fact. And I, President Obama put it in his special library. So in 12 years, from the time he put it in, it will then be declassified. The whole big report. But it pretty much documents what happened and everything is, it has 7000 footnotes to it. And no one has corrected anything in the summary. Well, CIA has corrected a few things which we’ve corrected, and where we didn’t accept the correction, we run in the footnotes what they say.

Scott Shafer
: I wonder if, you know, you have, over the course of your time in the Senate, developed a reputation and you’ve cultivated a bipartisan sort of collegial relationship with people on the other side of the aisle. Many times you’ve co-sponsored legislation and that sort of trade has kind of been criticized by your opponent in this race, Kevin de Leon.

Dianne Feinstein:
Well, by my opponent. But that’s his view, and that’s what it is. It’s not the way the Senate works. And the Senate works the way it has worked for a couple of hundred years. So it’s difficult. And I find that if I can talk to people and work with people, it makes it much easier to get something done. For example, it took me three years and 28 drafts to draft the water bill, which is called the WIN Act. And I then went over and I negotiated it with the Speaker of the House, who is a Republican, and that’s how we got it done. And then it went into an omnibus and it was passed. Never would have got it done otherwise. Now I have to begin and to draft another bill.

Scott Shafer: But I guess there are some people who say, well, you know what? That era is over. Well, you know, we can’t.

Dianne Feinstein:
What era is over? Getting things done?

Scott Shafer
: Well, yeah, maybe. I mean, if you look at, for example, the Senate Judiciary Committee, I mean, you’ve tried to work very carefully with Chuck Grassley, who chairs the committee. And they’re all these things are happening over objections of Democrats. I mean, where’s the compromise, say, on that committee?

Dianne Feinstein: Well, it all depends upon what it is. Yes, I worked with the chairman, believe it or not, over a very difficult nominee, Kavanaugh. I think we had some moments, but that happens to everybody in any kind of work or job. You have your moment and you put it together. I’m the lead Democrat. Right now I’m trying to draft a big immigration bill. It’s been five, seven years since we had the last bill. We worked on it and worked on it and had hearings on it. And it came out on the floor. We passed it and the House didn’t take it up. So there’s a big learning lesson in that for me, and I want to see if I can do it. Can I write a bill which I can also get through the House? And can that bill… And one of the things is, you know, the president said that he was going to have a policy of separating children from parents at the border.

Marisa Lagos
: He did have a policy.

Dianne Feinstein:
And we want to make that illegal by law. We want to protect small children. And we the DACA students. There are 700,000 of them. And getting their parents a work permit and getting them legitimized in this country. So there are a lot of things we can do as part of an immigration bill.

Marisa Lagos
: But it seems I mean, but we have been stuck without an immigration compromise for years. Just a few weeks ago, we saw Democrats leave town. There was an agreement to confirm 15 judges fast track them, under the, you know, agreement that there wouldn’t be any more justices pushed through the committee until after the election. And you guys left town and the Republicans did it anyway. I mean.

Dianne Feinstein:
Well, I had the debate schedule. That was.
Marisa Lagos: Right. But isn’t that I mean, doesn’t that speak to the breaking down of the bipartisanship that you’re talking about?
Dianne Feinstein: I’ll be very frank with you. This surprised me, that he would do that. However, if I think about it, this president is engaged in a conscious stacking of the federal court system of the United States of America. And so they are just pushing judges through now. Well, what happened was the hearing, it wasn’t the vote. And we all nonetheless do our work. We study the individual. We look at at that individual’s record. We know whether we can or cannot vote for them. And so we will be there for the vote. This was a surprise. I had never seen that done before.

Scott Shafer
: There are some in your party, and I think you could say the junior senator from California might be among them, you know, who feel like they have to take a harder line. I mean, Kamala Harris on the Judiciary Committee came out against Brett Kavanaugh from the get go, I think before she even met with them or certainly before there was a hearing. Do you think that’s a mistake?

Dianne Feinstein:
No. It’s her… If she wants to do that, she’s free to do it. I’ve always had a policy that until we get through the hearing, I never announce a decision. Otherwise, why I hold the hearing. And that’s my view of it. You know, Kamala, Kamala is going to be very good. There’s no question about that. And it’s wonderful for me, because I can be a friend. But we are also different in how we look at things. Everyone is. And we probably write differently.

Scott Shafer
: I wonder if, you know, if you feel like that style is not conducive to really building the kind of bridges.
Dianne Feinstein: That’s nonsense. The Senate takes all kinds of styles. I don’t know what this style business suddenly is here. Now I get things done. I get bills passed.

Scott Shafer
: And so you believe the Senate can work?
Dianne Feinstein: Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I do different things. I’m on different committees. We do share one committee. We share Judiciary. And I can learn from her. She’s the newcomer.

Scott Shafer
: What have you learned from her?

Dianne Feinstein: [CROSSTALK] Oh, what I’ve learned. I mean, she’s very smart. She’s been a prosecutor. You see that in her questioning. And it’s very interesting.

Scott Shafer: It’s not your style.

Dianne Feinstein: No. It’s not a question of style. It really isn’t. I get the feeling you’re trying to push me into some mode that I’m really not in.

Marisa Lagos: I want to ask you one question because you mentioned being the first woman on the judiciary, and we opened this by asking you about the trailblazing you’ve done. And I’m curious, you know, when we had Minority Leader Pelosi in her, she talked about the responsibilities she feels to be a woman at the table to to be to be there, really. And I just wonder if you feel that if that is part of the reason you still want to do this job for another six years?

Dianne Feinstein: No, it’s not just because I’m a woman. It’s because I think I do it well. And I’ve got a great staff and I work them very hard. And we have a level of excellence. And I think that’s important to get a bill as good as I can get it to work with people, to bring in other people’s views, to solve problems, to be able to pick up the phone and someone will take the call and hopefully say, yes, that’s really what this is about. It’s about getting things done for people.

Marisa Lagos: All right, Senator Feinstein, thank you so much.

Dianne Feinstein: Oh, you’re so welcome. Thank you. Thank you, Scott. Thank you, Marisa.

Marisa Lagos: That is going to do it for this edition of Political Breakdown, a production of KQED Public Radio. Just a reminder, you can find that interview with Senator Feinstein’s opponent, Kevin de Leon, in our archives, along with a whole host of other shows you should totally go listen to.

Scott Shafer: Absolutely. You can check out all of our elections coverage. We’re calling at our voter guide. There’s a whole lot more than that as well. Just go to KQED.org/elections. By the way, we also have a newsletter. You can subscribe to that at KQED.org/politicalbreakdown and wake up every Tuesday morning with us in your mailbox.

Marisa Lagos: Just in your mailbox. Not your apartment.

Sponsored

Scott Shafer: Or inbox, one or the other. Yeah, right.

Marisa Lagos
: Our producer is Guy Marzorati. Our engineers are Katie McMurran and Ceil Muller.

Scott Shafer
: Ethan Lindsey is our executive editor. Holly Kernan is our chief content officer. I’m Scott Shafer. You can follow me on Twitter. I’m at Scott Shafer.

Marisa Lagos
: And I’m Marisa Lagos. You can find me at MLagos. That is a wrap for this week’s Political Breakdown from KQED. We’ll see you next time.

Scott Shafer
: Bye bye.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
State Prisons Offset New Inmate Wage Hikes by Cutting Hours for Some WorkersCecil Williams, Legendary Pastor of Glide Church, Dies at 94Erik Aadahl on the Power of Sound in FilmFresno's Chinatown Neighborhood To See Big Changes From High Speed RailKQED Youth Takeover: How Can San Jose Schools Create Safer Campuses?How to Attend a Rally Safely in the Bay Area: Your Rights, Protections and the PoliceWill Less Homework Stress Make California Students Happier?Nurses Warn Patient Safety at Risk as AI Use Spreads in Health CareBill to Curb California Utilities’ Use of Customer Money Fails to PassCalifornia Proposes Law to Allow Arizona Doctors to Perform Abortions Amid Ban