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Dianne Feinstein, California’s Trailblazing Senior Senator, Dies at 90

Her decades-long political career paved the way for countless women

spinner image senator dianne feinstein listens to testimony during a senate judiciary committee hearing
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

It was 1978, and 45-year-old Dianne Feinstein was thinking about quitting public service after two unsuccessful runs for mayor of San Francisco. But events stepped in and changed her path. Feinstein was the first person to find the horrific scene: The city’s mayor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been shot to death by a former supervisor. As the first woman president of the board of supervisors, Feinstein became the first woman to lead San Francisco as mayor. Her nine-year tenure as the city’s chief executive led her to the U.S. Senate to cap a nearly half-century-long political career.

Feinstein died Thursday night at age 90 at her home, according to the Associated Press. Feinstein’s health had declined in recent years.

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Feinstein’s career included a series of other notable firsts. In 1992, she became the first woman U.S. senator from California. Barbara Boxer joined Feinstein as the junior senator from the Golden State two months later. Feinstein and Boxer, both Democrats, were part of what was dubbed the Year of the Woman, the first time four women were elected to the Senate in a single year.

“It has been a great pleasure to watch more and more women walk the halls of the Senate,” Feinstein reflected in 2022 when she became the longest-serving woman in that body. “We went from two women senators when I ran for office in 1992 to 24 today, and I know that number will keep climbing.”

In 1993, then-Sen. Joe Biden was chairman of the powerful Judiciary Committee. He decided it was time to put a woman on that panel, and Feinstein and Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.) became the committee’s first female members. Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, and as that committee’s leader, she was in charge of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. She was also the first woman to chair the Intelligence Committee.

A passion for gun control

Legislatively, Feinstein was perhaps best known for her passionate fight for gun control. She battled the powerful gun lobby and succeeded in securing a landmark assault weapons ban in 1994. But her victory came with a string: To get the bill passed, she had to agree that it would expire in 2004. She was unable to get it renewed, and for the rest of her time in office, Feinstein continued to fight for legislation to control assault weapons.

Feinstein described her most important work as when, as chair of the Intelligence Committee, she presided over the investigation into enhanced interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists after the 9/11 attacks. Her work was memorialized in the movie The Report, in which Annette Bening played the role of the senator.

A legacy for the Golden State

California’s senior senator also focused on environmental issues important to the nation’s most populous state. She helped get $250 million in federal funds to help buy the state’s 7,500-acre Headwaters Forest and preserve its old-growth redwoods. And she was instrumental in getting legislation passed that protected more than 7 million acres of desert. She was famous for getting environmentalists and farmers together to hammer out difficult water disputes.

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“It would be impossible to write the history of California politics, it would be impossible to write the history of American politics without acknowledging the trailblazing career of Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), who worked for Feinstein as a district staff member in the 1990s, said when she announced in February that she would not seek reelection to a seventh term in 2024.

Feinstein was known on Capitol Hill as a taskmaster to her staff and as a pragmatist. “It’s not about being ‘politically correct,’ but about what works and solves the problem at hand,” she wrote in Nine and Counting: The Women of the Senate, written by the nine women in the U.S. Senate in 2001.

Feinstein’s long tenure in the Senate became the subject of intense criticism and debate as she approached her 90th birthday. Her declining cognitive health was under scrutiny, and after a severe bout of shingles, which took her away from the Senate for several months, there were increasing calls from members of both parties for her to resign. Some, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Feinstein’s longtime friend and San Francisco neighbor, said such calls were evidence of a double standard. “I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” Pelosi said.

John Burton, a former chair of the California Democratic Party and never one to mince words, told Politico when Feinstein announced that her political career would come to an end in 2024 that Feinstein “got s--- done by working with people on both sides of the aisle.”

Burton said, “To those lining up to run for her seat, I hope you honor the fact that this powerful lady blazed the trail for you.”

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