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Senator Dianne Feinstein Dies at Age 90

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An older white lade with brown short hair and a pink top and scarf speaks while looking away from the camera, seen from the shoulder up.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at the KQED studios for tapings of KQED Newsroom and Political Breakdown on Oct. 23, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

Follow live ongoing coverage: Senator Dianne Feinstein dies at 90: Live Updates

Dianne Feinstein, a champion of gun control who broke glass ceilings for women in local, state and national politics, died Thursday night, KQED has confirmed. She was 90 years old.

“Sadly, Senator Feinstein passed away last night at her home in Washington, D.C.,” Feinstein’s chief of staff James Sauls wrote in a statement Friday. “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.”

Feinstein was elected to the U.S. Senate from California in 1992 on a wave of support for female candidates nationwide known as the “Year of the Woman” and went on to become the longest serving U.S. Senator in California history. But her rise in politics began in 1978 when the city was jolted by two assassinations at City Hall. As president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, it was left to Feinstein to announce the stunning news.

Standing before a crowd of reporters outside the mayor’s office in San Francisco City Hall on November 27, 1978 — long before news traveled around the world instantaneously — Feinstein’s announcement was delivered with both anguish and self-control, an image that would define her political reputation as a strong leader.

Dianne Feinstein bows her head for a moment of silence in memory of slain Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, just before the supervisors meeting on the day of the killings, Nov. 27, 1978. (Jerry Telfer/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

“Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk have been shot and killed,” she said as cries of shock and dismay rang out. “The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

Minutes earlier, Feinstein found Milk’s body down the hall from her office. It was a day seared into her memory. “I remember leaning over his body. … this is San Francisco, how can this be? How can this be? But it was,” Feinstein recounted to KQED in 2018.

Upon Mayor George Moscone’s death, Feinstein became mayor — a job she held for nearly a decade, first as acting mayor before being elected twice to full four-year terms. 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.

“She’s really a healer,” said Bay Area Council CEO Jim Wunderman in 2023 after Feinstein announced her retirement from the Senate.

Wunderman, who worked for Feinstein at City Hall when she was mayor, said “she first and foremost sees the opportunities to be able to bring people together in very difficult situations to solve extremely challenging problems. And she doesn’t shy away from it. You know, she kind of runs at the problem rather than running away from it.”

A white woman in a red suit dress speaks at a press conference.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks as Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) looks on at a news conference on gun control at the US Capitol June 20, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As mayor, Feinstein governed from the center — winning support from business groups, law enforcement unions and the city’s more moderate-to-conservative voters. 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. It made for some very interesting dinner conversations,” she said.

Dianne Goldman was born in San Francisco in 1933, the oldest of three girls. Her father Leon Goldman was a surgeon and her mother, Betty, was a Russian immigrant who worked as a model. She did not have a particularly happy childhood. Years later Feinstein recounted how her mother would fly into fits of alcohol-fueled rage.

Feinstein graduated from Stanford University in 1955 after studying political science. She eloped with her first husband, attorney Jack Berman, but they soon divorced. The two had a daughter, Katherine, who took the name of Feinstein’s second husband Bert Feinstein, who died of cancer in 1978.

Feinstein’s first foray into elected office came in 1969 when she ran a successful campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. By then she had established policy credentials as a member of state and local boards focused on criminal justice issues. In a crowded field of candidates, Feinstein finished first and became the first woman to be president of the board.

Feinstein tried to parlay that early success into higher office, running for mayor of San Francisco in 1971. She came in third. In 1973 she once again became president of the board of supervisors after topping the field. Two years later she waged a second campaign for mayor, but once again finished a disappointing third in an election that was eventually won by State Senator George Moscone.

In 1978, just hours before the City Hall assassinations, Feinstein mentioned that she was thinking of leaving politics altogether. The murders changed everything.

As mayor, Feinstein focused largely on the nuts and bolts of running a city. She took a hands-on interest in the workings of local government, regularly showing up at major fires and monitoring police radio calls. When the city’s renowned but aging cable cars were faced with extinction, Feinstein successfully rallied the business community to raise funds to refurbish them.

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By then the AIDS epidemic was ravaging her city. The federal government under President Ronald Reagan mostly ignored it. As a young physician at San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. 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.’ And that really goes to her leadership and a great credit to her,” said Volberding, who has since retired.

In 1984, San Francisco hosted the Democratic National Convention. Feinstein landed on the cover of Time Magazine, making the short list to become presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s running mate, a position that ultimately went to Geraldine Ferraro.

A white woman speaks to supporters at a convention with signs around her that read "Dianne"
Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, addresses the Democratic National Convention. She would be elected to the Senate in November of 1992. (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 1990, after leaving the mayor’s office, Feinstein ran for governor. She won the Democratic primary but lost narrowly in November to Republican U.S. Senator Pete Wilson. But a year later, the political climate changed with the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.

When law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual misconduct when they worked together, the Judiciary Committee questioned Hill’s integrity and motivation, as did Democratic Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama.

“Are you a scorned woman? Do you have a militant attitude relative to the area of civil rights?” Heflin said in one of many out-of-touch comments by senators that infuriated women.

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 for the Senate in San Diego in 1992, Feinstein championed legislation to codify a woman’s right to an abortion into federal law.

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

Feinstein rode the moment to victory, part of a wave that tripled the number of women in the U.S. Senate from two to six.

In Washington, she championed gun control, overcoming stiff odds to pass a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994. Later that year she almost lost reelection to a self-funded millionaire, Michael Huffington, a Republican member of Congress from Santa Barbara.

In Washington, D.C., Feinstein developed a reputation as a workhorse, someone who did her homework and wasn’t afraid to rock the boat. She sponsored the Desert Protection Act, which successfully protected 9.6 million acres of open space in California, creating among other things the Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Parks.

Throughout her career Feinstein had to deal with men who underestimated and talked down to her. In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in 2013, Feinstein chastised Texas Senator Ted Cruz who belittled her understanding of guns.

“I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years. I was a mayor for nine years. I walked in. I saw people shot. I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons,” she said.

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 9/11 attacks.

A white woman in a red suit opens her arms to embrace an African American man in a blue suit on a runway.
Former US President Barack Obama is greeted by Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) upon arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco, on Nov. 25, 2013. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

“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 on the Senate floor.

The 500-page summary report by the Senate Intelligence Committee Feinstein chaired revealed in stark detail CIA mistreatment of prisoners, 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 Senator Feinstein’s entire Senate career,” Blanton said.

A white woman smiles while surrounded by journalists holding microphones to her.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, talks with reporters after sharing a report on the CIA and its torture methods, Dec. 9, 2014. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Despite that leadership, Feinstein was often regarded as too conservative, especially for the Democratic Party, especially in California. And the election of Donald Trump in 2016 put Feinstein’s brand of bipartisanship even further out of step within her own party.

By the summer of 2017 Trump’s pattern of lies and racist comments was well established. During an onstage interview at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, when Feinstein was asked about how Democrats should deal with Trump, her response triggered audible gasps in the audience.

“Look, this man is going to be president most likely for the rest of this term. I just hope he has the ability to learn. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that’s my hope,” she said.

Her comments prompted critics to say that Feinstein was hopelessly out of touch with her state, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton.

A white woman with a pink blazer jacket and red scarf seated in front of a microphone with a middle aged in a shirt and tie standing but bent over beside her saying something into a microphone.
Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) during recordings at the KQED studios for tapings of KQED Newsroom and Political Breakdown on Oct. 23, 2018. (Anne Wernikoff/KQED)

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. During her final term in office it was clear to many that Feinstein was not fully up to the task of representing 40 million Californians in the U.S. Media reports detailed concern among her colleagues that Feinstein, who was once a formidable presence in Washington, was losing her short-term memory and her effectiveness as a Senator.

Earlier this year, a serious bout of shingles forced Feinstein to miss nearly a hundred votes while she recovered at home in San Francisco. When she returned to Washington three months later, she appeared even more frail with lingering side effects from shingles that limited her ability to work. Feinstein might have hoped her return to work would silence calls for her to resign, but her obviously diminished state only fueled concerns that she was unable to do the job. 

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.

In the 2001 interview with CSPAN, Feinstein compared herself to the city’s symbol of resilience — the phoenix.

“You have to rise from your own ashes. You have to learn in the process. And you have to really care. Really care that the government serves the people. That the government is honest. And I really believe that to my depth,” she said.

An older white woman with a blue dress suit seen from the right profile, waist up.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) leaves the Senate Chamber following a vote in the US Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023 in Washington, DC, the day Feinstein announced that she will not seek reelection in 2024. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Feinstein’s most enduring legacy may be that she opened more doors for women in politics.

Malia Cohen, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before becoming State Controller in 2022, 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.

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

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