Feinstein, SF's 'forever mayor,' lionized at City Hall memorial

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Thursday October 5, 2023
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Eileen Mariano, left, speaks at the memorial service for her grandmother, senator Dianne Feinstein, October 5 outside San Francisco City Hall. Looking on are Mayor London Breed, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi. Photo: SF Chronicle pool<br>
Eileen Mariano, left, speaks at the memorial service for her grandmother, senator Dianne Feinstein, October 5 outside San Francisco City Hall. Looking on are Mayor London Breed, Vice President Kamala Harris, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi. Photo: SF Chronicle pool

After America's powerful raised their voices in praise of Dianne Feinstein at her memorial service Thursday, the late senator's granddaughter reminded San Franciscans what made her, in the words of another speaker, their "forever mayor."

"For San Franciscans, Senator Feinstein guided the city through tragedy, saved our beloved cable cars, created the iconic Pier 39, and fought for the LGBTQ community during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic," Eileen Mariano said.

But to Mariano, Feinstein was a lot more.

"To me, she will be remembered as the most incredible grandmother," Mariano said, adding that when she herself was born, Feinstein noted how similar they looked and advised her daughter, Katherine, to name her Dianne.

"From then on, she and I were extremely close," Mariano said. "When I was a toddler, we could amuse ourselves for hours playing hide and seek. ... I would spend nights at my grandmother's house whenever she was home in San Francisco. She taught me to play chess — although she hated losing. We would pick flowers from her garden and draw them together — although only her drawings were worthy of being made into prints. She would give me haircuts at home in the kitchen, much to my parents' dismay ... and she loved teaching me about San Francisco's history."

Feinstein died at her Washington, D.C. home September 29 at the age of 90. She had been in poor health in recent months.

Congressmember Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, remembers her good friend and San Francisco neighbor Dianne Feinstein at the late senator's memorial service October 5. Photo: SF Chronicle pool  

Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D), who has represented San Francisco in the United States House of Representatives since 1987 — including two stints as speaker — paid tribute to her longtime friend and associate, and also brought up her passion for flowers.

"She loved flowers," Pelosi said. "To show them, to grow them, to paint them, to share them."

The U.S. Navy's Blue Angels, practicing ahead of this weekend's airshow, flew over San Francisco City Hall during the memorial for U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein October 5. Photo: SF Chronicle pool  

The hourlong service in front of San Francisco City Hall was dramatically punctuated by the United States Navy Blue Angels flying overhead as they practiced for this weekend's air show as part of the city's Fleet Week. Current Mayor London Breed noted Feinstein started the popular event in 1981.

"It's what Dianne wants," Pelosi said when she was interrupted by the flyover. "That's what we get."

While Feinstein was "a mentor of generosity and sweetness," she was still tenacious and effective at work — a quality that led the congressmember to call Feinstein the city's "forever mayor."

"I have a T-shirt," Pelosi said. "'I survived Dianne's staff meetings.'"

A trailblazer
Pelosi paid tribute to Feinstein the trailblazer, too.

"Dianne went to her first civic engagement with Katherine [her daughter] in a stroller," Pelosi said. "Dianne was such a commanding mayor for 10 powerful years that when her term was up and some other people started running for mayor, including some men, schoolchildren were saying 'can a man be mayor?'"

Due to her being president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Feinstein became mayor in November 1978 following the assassination of then-mayor George Moscone, who was killed with gay supervisor Harvey Milk by disgruntled ex-supervisor Dan White. She announced the news of their deaths to a shocked city and nation from inside City Hall.

Her status as a pioneering woman was the focus of remarks from Vice President Kamala Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and the state's attorney general who became a colleague of Feinstein in the Senate until she became vice president.

Vice President Kamala Harris embraces Eileen Mariano at the memorial service for U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein October 5 as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Congressmember Nancy Pelosi applaud. Photo: SF Chronicle pool  

Harris remembered being at Feinstein's victory party the night she was elected California's first female senator in 1992. She called the late senator "an icon of California," "a standard-bearer of America," a "giant of the Senate," and a "dear friend."

"Fast forward to today, when I again traveled to the city to celebrate Dianne, this time from Washington, D.C. on Air Force Two," Harris said. "Dianne: the women of America have come a long way. Our country has come a long way, and you helped move the ball forward and our nation salutes you, Dianne."

Harris also thanked the Feinstein family.

"To many of you, she was supervisor, mayor, senator and then chairman," Harris said. "To Katherine and Eileen, she held the most important titles of all, mother and grandmother. ... I don't have to tell you that it is not easy when a loved one lives a life of public service, especially a person as hardworking and selfless as Dianne Feinstein. So to you, the family, we thank you for all the sacrifices you have knowingly and unknowingly made over the years that have allowed her to serve. And on behalf of the people of the United States, we are grateful to you."

Breed said she remembered that she first met Feinstein as a child while a French horn player in the Benjamin Franklin Middle School band — the mayor's band.

"Whenever there was an important event or activity, she chose us to perform. We played in City Hall and at Super Bowl celebrations. ... Mayor Feinstein always took the time to talk to us, tell us how amazing we were, and remind us that we were her band," Breed said. "It was her advice on how to heal and lead that gave me strength. But I don't know if she recognized that none of the things she told me as an adult were ever as important as what she showed us as children."

The two shared a kinship, Breed said. Feinstein took over as the city's first female mayor after Moscone was killed. Breed took over as the city's second female mayor after mayor Ed Lee died in December 2017 after suffering a cardiac event at a Safeway. (In January 2018, the Board of Supervisors selected then-supervisor Mark Farrell to serve as mayor until a special election was held in 2018, which Breed won.)

Breed noted how the iconic presence of Feinstein sent a message to subsequent generations of women that they weren't excluded from leadership.

"For kids my age, we just always accepted that a woman could be in charge, that a woman could do whatever a man could do," Breed said. "We believed that. We considered it normal."

Concluded Breed, "She was our mayor, our champion, the leader of our band. And I know I speak for all of San Francisco when I say she will be missed."

President Joe Biden gave brief recorded remarks, remembering Feinstein's role in the 1994 assault weapons ban. The two served in the Senate together from 1992, when she was sworn in, until Biden became vice president in 2009.

"God bless a great American hero," the president said. "She was something else. She was a dear friend. God bless Dianne Feinstein."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) also paid his respects. He mentioned Feinstein's legendary work ethic, saying she made it through a day of a summit in Lake Tahoe with a fracture.

When asked how she got through the day, Feinstein answered, "I just did," Schumer recalled, using the incident as a case in point for her whole career.

Schumer also made the only other reference to LGBTQs, recognizing Feinstein for fighting for marriage equality. She was one of the few no votes on the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s. And while she initially was somewhat critical of then-mayor Gavin Newsom's decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004, she became an opponent of Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that voters narrowly passed in 2008. Prop 8 was later ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.

Rabbi Jonathan Singer of Temple Emanu-el led those assembled in praying the Twenty-third Psalm — "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death" — with a cantor singing the verses in Hebrew. Schumer said that when his daughter moved to San Francisco, and had nowhere to attend synagogue during the high holy days, Feinstein informed him she'd be attending with her.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, third from left, joins Governor Gavin Newsom, first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Katherine Feinstein, and her husband, Rick Mariano, at the memorial for U.S. senator Dianne Feinstein October 5. Photo: SF Chronicle pool  

The state's political luminaries were out in full force in attendance, including Newsom, now the state's governor, and some 30 senators, including Senator Alex Padilla (D-California). Earlier this week, Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler (D), a Black lesbian, to replace Feinstein and she attended the service, as did gay Congressmember Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin).

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) spoke for many in the past week in a statement before the memorial — as a leader of a city in overlapping crises, Feinstein not only beat them but moved the city forward.

"As we bid Dianne Feinstein a final farewell, let's remember what she meant to San Francisco," Wiener stated. "She became mayor during one of the most difficult periods imaginable for our city. She led San Francisco out of the fires of political assassinations, mass cult suicides, and a mass die-off of gay men due to a new, terrifying virus," Wiener stated, referring not only to the Milk-Moscone assassinations but the mass suicide at People's Temple founder Jim Jones' Jonestown compound in Guyana that occurred just before the City Hall killings.

"She led us through these difficult times while also rejuvenating downtown, saving the cable cars, and reestablishing San Francisco's role as a global leader. Dianne Feinstein will go down in history as a truly iconic leader for San Francisco and our nation," he added.

Thomas E. Horn, a gay man who is president of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center and former publisher of the B.A.R., counted himself among Feinstein's friends and was at the memorial. He told the B.A.R. that "it's a very sad day" just before the ceremony. He had known Feinstein since the 1970s.

"She was a monumental figure in the life of San Francisco, the state, and the country," Horn said. "She put the city back together on the heels of tragedy, and we are bidding her a final farewell."

Jim Haas, a gay attorney, was not there. He stated in an email that Feinstein had recently sent him a "beautiful inscribed pewter tray" for his 70th birthday.

"When she first became supervisor in 1970, she [later] became president of the board," Haas stated. "I went to her and offered to organize a group of young people to look into issues and make recommendations for her. ... I have been involved with her off and on ever since."

It's the city's Board of Supervisors who have to work with the mayor in addressing the crises of today. Gay Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who represents District 6 (South of Market), attended the memorial. He stated he met Feinstein during a rare unsuccessful campaign — that for governor in 1990. Feinstein was among the first California politicians the native New Englander had ever met.

"As luck would have it, I worked for the consulting firm that was part of her successful Senate bid two years later," Dorsey stated to the B.A.R. "She was an admirable and influential leader for the Democratic Party as well as for our city, state, and nation. I'm grateful for having had the opportunity to work with her and her office on many issues, public safety chief among them. She will be missed."

Joel Engardio, a gay man who represents District 4 (Outer Sunset) on the board, was also in attendance but never met Feinstein.

"As the newest member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I feel her influence every time I enter City Hall," he stated. "She was a trailblazer who shaped our city, state, and nation over a half century of public service. Her legacy will be remembered."

Rafael Mandelman, a gay man who represents District 8 (Castro-Noe Valley) on the board, stated, "It was a beautiful memorial, an appropriate sendoff for a great San Franciscan who had shattered glass ceilings and done so much good for our city, state and country."

Feinstein's family held a separate private funeral service.

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