U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a centrist Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1992, has died. She was 90.
California senator known as advocate for environmental protection, reproductive rights, gun control
The Associated Press
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 called Feinstein “a pioneering American,” a “true trailblazer” and a “cherished friend.”
“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.”
Feinstein, the oldest sitting U.S. senator and the longest serving female senator ever, was a passionate advocate for issues such as environmental protection, reproductive rights and gun control, but also a pragmatic lawmaker who reached out to Republicans and sought middle ground.
Colleagues from across the aisle also paid tribute Friday.
“I would recommend any young person who is interested in a political life to study the life and career of Sen. Dianne Feinstein as a role model,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
Feinstein was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and became its first female president in 1978, the same year Mayor George Moscone was gunned down alongside board supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. Feinstein found Milk’s body and broke the news to stunned reporters that the pair had been killed, with White the main suspect.
After Moscone’s death, Feinstein became San Francisco’s first female mayor.
“As Mayor of San Francisco, she bravely led us out of dark, difficult times, lifting the spirits and hopes of many who felt lost in the wake of tragedy,” London Breen, the current mayor, said Friday.
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 Senate judiciary committee’s top Democrat.
Although Feinstein was not always embraced by the feminist movement, her experiences coloured 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.
Her 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.
Decided not to run again
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.
Several high-profile members of the House have announced bids to succeed her in the November 2024 election, including Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.
Before then, it will be up to California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, to appoint an interim replacement.
In a statement, Newsom hailed Feinstein as a “political giant whose tenacity was matched by her grace.”
Assault weapons ban
One of Feinstein’s most significant legislative accomplishments was early in her career, when the Senate approved her amendment to ban the 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.
Two decades later, after 20 children and six educators were killed in the horrific Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas 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.”