(Bloomberg) — Long before she became a symbol of an aging Senate, Dianne Feinstein was California’s most admired politician.
Reserved, revered in her day, omnipresent, Feinstein was through her 60 years of public life California’s version of the Queen. And like Queen Elizabeth II, Feinstein continued working until the last day of her long life, casting her final vote to avert a government shutdown only hours before she died in Washington, D.C., on Thursday night at the age of 90.
It was Feinstein’s sense of duty — coupled with her stubborn, often contrarian nature — that kept her from resigning from the US Senate seat she’d held since 1992, said those close to her during her public deterioration.
“Her mindset was to do the job no matter what else was going on and for everyone around her to do their jobs too, no matter what,” said Jim Lazarus, who first worked for Feinstein when she was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and later served as her deputy mayor and adviser in the Senate.
It was in her role on the Board of Supervisors that Feinstein took her place on the national stage, in the hours after the City Hall assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on Nov. 27, 1978.
Feinstein, who had seen the killer, ex-Supervisor Dan White, run by her office, discovered Milk’s body and checked for a pulse, her hand sliding into the bullet hole in his wrist. She had only a short time to wipe off the blood before it fell to her, next in the line to the mayor’s seat, to tell the city what had happened.
Composed and steely, Feinstein, who became mayor, assured people that San Francisco would recover from the “spiritual damage” of the killings.
The following spring, there were riots in the streets when a jury found White guilty of manslaughter rather than murder in the City Hall killings. At a time of chaos “what you got from Dianne was this sense that somebody’s in charge, this sense of stability,” said former House speaker Nancy Pelosi in an interview before Feinstein’s death. “People knew that she wouldn’t be emotional and pop off. She was this serious, respected person who had the confidence of the city.”
In the mid-1980s, Feinstein and her husband Richard Blum moved across the street from Pelosi, who was becoming more active in the city’s Democratic political circles as her five children grew up.
“We were friends and we were neighbors, but we were not particularly on the same place on the political spectrum,” said Pelosi, who was first elected to Congress in 1987. “My oldest daughter Nancy absolutely worshiped Dianne and the other kids would joke and say ‘If mommy ran against Dianne, who would she vote for?’”
Feinstein failed in 1990 in a run to become governor, but in 1992 along with Barbara Boxer, she was elected to the US Senate, making California the first state to elect two women senators. In becoming the longest serving woman in the body’s history, Feinstein was also the first woman to chair or serve as the Democrats’ most senior member on the Senate’s powerful Judiciary, Intelligence and Appropriations committees.
Even as Feinstein drove historic legislation, including the 1994 assault weapons ban and landmark environmental protections, she diverged from Pelosi and other Democrats in her support for the death penalty, refusal to back the Green New Deal or to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2018, in an unprecedented rebuke, the California Democratic Party declined to endorse Feinstein for re-election.
Feinstein’s centrist politics — shaped during the bygone era when local offices in California were nonpartisan — increasingly put her at odds with her fellow Democrats as the party became more progressive. Feinstein appeared out of step not only due to age, but her refusal to engage in the culture wars.
In a 2011 article on the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth, Feinstein wrote even though Reagan was a conservative Republican, he “had a common-sense conviction that helped his achievements. You would not have seen him giving a speech like many do today — calling his opponents names.”
Although criticized by her fellow Democrats for not being progressive enough, Feinstein was in many ways a woman ahead of her time. She was a staunch supporter of abortion rights. As mayor, she backed legislation banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and as senator she hosted a wedding reception at her San Francisco home for a well-known lesbian couple who were advocates for same-sex marriage.
Though she was not a movement feminist in the mold of Pelosi or Hillary Clinton, Feinstein said she lived “a feminist life,” according to the Washington Post.
‘I’ve Lived It’
“I had to quit a job because there was no maternity leave,” she said. “I raised a child as a single mother. I put together legislation. I haven’t been a marcher, but I’ve lived it.”
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown first met Feinstein in 1961, when local activists organized a protest against real estate agents who refused to show a new home to the then young, unknown Black lawyer and his wife.
“There was Dianne, this housewife, pushing a stroller and holding a sign,” Brown said in an interview before Feinstein’s death. “I don’t think she had ever protested anything in her life.”
Former House member Jackie Speier was running for the California state assembly in 1986 when Feinstein showed up for her.
“I was not the party’s chosen candidate and couldn’t get endorsements or funding,” Speier said. “Dianne endorsed me.” When Speier’s husband was killed in a car crash while she was pregnant, Feinstein comforted Speier and encouraged her to remain in public life.
Like Feinstein, Speier also had personal experience with gun violence, having been shot as a young aide to Representative Leo Ryan on the tarmac in Guyana prior to the Jonestown massacre in 1978.
Later elected to Ryan’s old seat in Congress, Speier says she and Feinstein never discussed their history as survivors. Instead, says Speier, they focused on Feinstein’s work on the landmark Senate Intelligence Committee’s report criticizing the CIA’s torture of detainees suspected of terrorism.
That insistence on hewing to the task at hand, paying little attention to the politics of identity, party orthodoxy or the demands of the news cycle made Feinstein an unlikely feminist icon.
“This is a woman who led a life of phenomenal firsts,” says Speier. “And she didn’t get there by saying, ‘Mother may I’ but by having a steel spine.”
Feinstein seemed willing to endure the indignities of growing old and frail in the public eye, including a lawsuit filed by her daughter in a family battle over her late husband’s estate, describing her as the victim of elder abuse.
“This is all a family matter. It has nothing to do with the Senate or, frankly, anything else,” Feinstein told the San Francisco Chronicle in what would be her final interview.
“I’ve got my hands full with committee work and intelligence work and other things. I’m proud of it, I work hard and try to — because we’re far away — look after the California issues like wildfire and water that are vital to our survival.”
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