CA US Senator Dianne Feinstein dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday September 29, 2023
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U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has died, her office announced. Photo: Rick Gerharter
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has died, her office announced. Photo: Rick Gerharter

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the oldest sitting member of the Senate and a trailblazer for women in politics, has died, multiple outlets reported Friday morning. She was 90.

Feinstein, a Democrat whose political career began in San Francisco and who was catapulted into the national spotlight after the assassinations of gay supervisor Harvey Milk and then-mayor George Moscone in 1978, had served in the Senate since 1992. She was the first woman elected to represent California in the Senate.

Her office issued a statement that Feinstein died September 29 at her home in Washington, D.C.

Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in the Senate, had been in poor health in recent months, and suffered a severe case of shingles earlier this year that caused her to miss months of work. Feinstein announced in February that she would not seek reelection next year, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported.

Governor Gavin Newsom is now expected to name her replacement, and has committed to appoint a Black woman, though it likely won't be Congressmember Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who is among the candidates running to replace Feinstein. Newsom said recently that he planned to appoint a caretaker to Feinstein's seat if that opportunity presented itself. Now that Feinstein has died, Newsom will have to fill the seat.

The Senate now stands at 47 Democrats and three independents who caucus with them, and 49 Republicans, making it 50-50.

Newsom issued a statement Friday morning.

"Dianne Feinstein was many things — a powerful, trailblazing U.S. senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos. But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a powerful, effective leader looks like," he stated.

"She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace," Newsom added. "She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation. And she was a fighter — for the city, the state, and the country she loved. Every race she won, she made history, but her story wasn't just about being the first woman in a particular political office, it was what she did for California, and for America, with that power once she earned it. That's what she should be remembered for.

"There is simply nobody who possessed the strength, gravitas, and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein. Jennifer and I are deeply saddened by her passing, and we will mourn with her family in this difficult time," Newsom added, referring to his wife, first partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom.

President Joe Biden, who once served with Feinstein in the Senate, also issued a statement.

"In San Francisco, she showed enormous poise and courage in the wake of tragedy, and became a powerful voice for American values," Biden stated. "Serving in the Senate together for more than 15 years, I had a front row seat to what Dianne was able to accomplish. It's why I recruited her to serve on the Judiciary Committee when I was Chairman — I knew what she was made of, and I wanted her on our team. There's no better example of her skillful legislating and sheer force of will than when she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons."

During her tenure in the Senate, Feinstein is perhaps best known for spearheading the assault weapons ban in 1994 and was law for a decade before expiring in 2004. Efforts to pass a news law have failed. While it did ban many types of firearms, modifications to guns over the years led to loopholes in the law that some said stymied its effectiveness.

Nevertheless, Feinstein stated on her website that the original ban was effective at reducing crime and getting some military-style weapons off the streets.

Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ rights organization, praised Feinstein in a statement.

"We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Senator Dianne Feinstein, a trailblazer and tireless advocate for equality and justice. Senator Feinstein devoted her life to serving the people of California and our nation, championing LGBTQ+ civil rights, reproductive freedom, gun safety reform, and democracy throughout her remarkable career," stated Executive Director Tony Hoang, a gay man. "Senator Feinstein stood with our community back when few others did, fighting for funding and action to combat the AIDS crisis when most elected officials chose to look away. Her work from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the United States Senate transformed our state and our nation for the better.

"On the Board of Supervisors and then as mayor, she played a crucial role in uniting San Francisco after the horrific assassinations of supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone, demonstrating exceptional leadership and compassion at a time when our LGBTQ+ community needed it most," Hoang added. "Now, as we mourn her loss, our community joins Senator Feinstein's family, friends and loved ones in honoring her extraordinary legacy."

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) said, "there will never be another Dianne Feinstein."

"Dianne Feinstein was a true giant," Wiener stated. "She helped save our city, becoming Mayor after horrific political assassinations & leading us during the worst of the HIV/AIDS health disaster. As our senator she led on gun safety & so many issues."

Lesbian state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) said Feinstein was "an incredible leader."

"California — and our nation — has lost an incredible leader who dedicated her career and life to public service, and opened doors for women in politics," Atkins stated. "We are fortunate to have benefitted from Senator Feinstein's courage, strength, and governance for so many years — her legacy is one of a class few can hope to match."

Senator Alex Padilla (D-California) mourned the passing of his colleague.

"It is with profound sadness that I bid farewell to my dear friend, colleague, and champion for the State of California, Senator Dianne Feinstein," Padilla stated. "Dianne Feinstein was a towering figure not just in modern California politics, but in the history of our state and our nation."

"Following her election to the Senate over three decades ago, Dianne's commitment to bipartisan collaboration made her a deeply respected figure on both sides of the aisle," Padilla added. "She understood the importance of working together to find common ground and get things done for California, for the country, and for the American people. Her ability to bridge divides and find consensus, especially on the thorniest of issues, was a testament to her dedication to the principles of democracy."

Then-San Francisco supervisor Dianne Feinstein made the cover of the November 1, 1971 Bay Area Reporter. She ran unsuccessfully for mayor that year. Photo: BAR Archives  

Career forged in tragedy
Feinstein, who'd been president of the Board of Supervisors and represented the Marina neighborhood at City Hall, became mayor on November 27, 1978 following the assassination of Moscone by disgruntled former supervisor Dan White inside City Hall. White then killed Milk, the first gay elected official in the Golden State, in his City Hall office.

Feinstein's dramatic announcement of the political leaders' deaths and the identity of the suspect were televised nationwide. She was subsequently elected mayor in her own right in 1979.

Earlier in that campaign she'd faced some opposition from members of the LGBTQ community after she made remarks to Ladies' Home Journal perceived as homophobic, but later won community support after gay candidate David Scott endorsed her in a runoff against independent Quentin Kopp. Scott endorsed Feinstein after she committed to appoint a gay person to the police oversight panel, which Feinstein followed through on with her appointment of lesbian Jo Daly.

Feinstein's veto of city employee benefits for domestic partners led to a recall effort in 1983, though she won 81% to 18%.

After departing the mayoralty in 1988, she made an unsuccessful run for California governor in 1990. Feinstein then ran for the U.S. Senate seat, winning in 1992's Year of the Woman that saw a record number of female candidates elected. In the Senate she was one of the few Democratic members who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, which had been supported by then-senator and current President Joe Biden (D), and was an outspoken advocate for gun control. The expiration of her assault weapons ban in 2004 has been blamed, in part, for the spate of America's mass shootings.

The last vestiges of DOMA were formally repealed last December when Biden signed the Respect for Marriage Act. DOMA had key provisions struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 (Section 3, U.S. v. Windsor) and 2015 (Section 2, Obergefell v. Hodges). Not only does it require federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriages nationwide but also mandates states must recognize such unions performed in other states. The act includes protections for religious liberty.

Feinstein was never without controversy though, and in 2004 upset more progressive Democrats when she said then-mayor and now Governor Newsom's decision to order San Francisco officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples was "too much, too fast, too soon."

More recently, she was criticized in 2020 when she said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation hearing was "one of the best" and hugged Senator Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), then the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Barrett's vote last June on the Supreme Court was key for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which had protected abortion as a constitutional right, a key issue for Feinstein.

Feinstein's husband Richard C. Blum, a regent of the University of California, died in February 2022 at the age of 86.

John Ferrannini contributed reporting.

Updated, 9/29/23: This article has been updated with additional comments.

Updated 10/2/23: This article has been updated to state Feinstein died September 29.

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