Dianne Feinstein, 90, Dies; Oldest Sitting Senator and Fixture of California Politics

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Read the latest updates about Senator Dianne Feinstein’s death and her possible replacement here.

Dianne Feinstein, the grande dame of California Democrats who became the mayor of San Francisco after a horrific double assassination at City Hall in 1978 and then gained national stature as an influential voice in the United States Senate for more than 30 years, died on Thursday night at her home in Washington. She was 90 and the Senate’s oldest member.

Her death was confirmed by family members, who did not cite a cause. Ms. Feinstein had returned to the Senate in May, appearing frail and using a wheelchair, after a two-month absence during which she was treated for shingles that had spread to her neck and face and that had led to encephalitis, a rare complication that causes swelling of the brain, among other symptoms.

Her death comes more than seven months after she announced that she intended to retire at the end of her term in January 2025. The news concluded a protracted guessing game as to whether she would seek another term on Capitol Hill at her advanced age, and it set off a scramble among California Democrats eager to succeed her.

Ms. Feinstein’s political life first gained traction during a volatile period in San Francisco and played out in tense Senate years, when an impeached President Bill Clinton was acquitted and the nation went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Throughout, she was an eloquent champion of civil rights and gun control who defended and also denounced national security measures in the age of terrorism.

A tough campaigner who often embraced conservative ideas, Ms. Feinstein (pronounced FINE-stine) was San Francisco’s mayor from 1978 to 1988. After losing a race for governor of California to Pete Wilson, a Republican, in 1990, she won a special election for his old Senate seat in 1992, then a full six-year term in 1994, and was re-elected by large margins in 2000, 2006 and 2012.

When she won a sixth term in 2018, she was already the oldest member of the Senate, having served during four presidencies. She went on to see the beginning of a fifth, that of Joe Biden.

She achieved remarkable political breakthroughs as a woman, becoming San Francisco’s first female mayor; the first to be considered as a presidential running mate, in 1984 (Walter F. Mondale eventually chose Geraldine A. Ferraro); the first major-party candidate for governor of California; the state’s first woman elected to the Senate; and, in time, a fixture among the oldest members of the Senate. She presided over President Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural ceremonies, another first for a woman. And in November 2022, after 30 years in the Senate, she surpassed Barbara A. Mikulski’s record as the longest-tenured female senator in American history.

Ms. Feinstein called herself a political centrist, and she sometimes changed her mind. She opposed and later supported same-sex marriage; she supported and later opposed the death penalty. Her most notable reversals, however, followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

She voted for the war in Iraq and, for a time, backed President George W. Bush’s policies on detaining and interrogating terrorist suspects, most of whom were moved to the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba in 2006.

But by 2007, Ms. Feinstein favored closing Guantánamo, and in 2014, as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, she oversaw a damning report detailing the C.I.A.’s post-9/11 program of detaining terrorist suspects at secret prisons around the world and subjecting them to torture techniques, ostensibly to uncover and prevent future attacks. Mr. Obama had ordered an end to such inhumane practices after he took office in 2009, although human rights groups have said that many continued for years.

“My words give me no pleasure,” Ms. Feinstein told the Senate when the report was released. “Nevertheless, such pressure, fear and expectation of further terrorist plots do not justify, temper or excuse improper actions taken by individuals or organizations in the name of national security. The major lesson of this report is that regardless of the pressures and the need to act, the intelligence community’s actions must always reflect who we are as a nation, and adhere to our laws and standards.”

To constituents and to a nation drawn to the story of her often difficult life, Ms. Feinstein seemed a paragon of dignity in conservative suits, perfectly coiffured and as regal as Queen Elizabeth II when the two met in San Francisco. But the resolute face was lined with hardships: a childhood of abuse by a mentally unstable and alcoholic mother, a painful divorce that left her a young single parent, and the deaths of her father and her second husband after lingering struggles with cancer.

By age 45, still unknown outside her hometown, she seemed washed up in politics. She was president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the city-county legislature, and an all but hopeless aspirant for mayor. She had already lost twice in the city’s nonpartisan mayoral races, in 1971 to Joseph Alioto and in 1975 to George Moscone. And her life had been threatened: A bomb had been planted at her home, reportedly by members of the New World Liberation Front, one of several underground radical groups operating in the Bay Area. The bomb did not explode, but the windows of her vacation house were later shot out.

On Nov. 27, 1978, at the end of her tether, Ms. Feinstein told City Hall reporters that she intended to quit political life. Two hours later, shots exploded down the hall from her office. She ran toward the gunfire and, moments later, knelt beside a dying mayor. Mr. Moscone and Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, who was shot in another office, had been killed by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor, who was quickly captured and eventually imprisoned.

That afternoon, a somber Ms. Feinstein, temporarily named acting mayor by a hastily assembled group of supervisors, announced the assassinations at a televised news conference, declared a period of mourning and spoke movingly of the loss of her fallen colleagues. To a shaken city, she was a firm, reassuring presence. “She was poised,” The San Francisco Chronicle said in an editorial. “She was eloquent. She was restrained. And she was reassuring and strong.”

The Board of Supervisors was empowered to elect a replacement. Ms. Feinstein, as board president and the demonstrable leader on the day of the assassinations, had the inside track. And a week later, after some maneuvering, she was elected by the supervisors to fill out Mr. Moscone’s term.

In the ensuing weeks, she pledged an “emotional reconstruction” for San Francisco and a government “as just and as good as our people.” She pleaded for amity, disputed images of the city as a haven for eccentrics, and eventually restored a sense of order and peace.

Dianne Emiel Goldman was born in San Francisco on June 22, 1933, the eldest of three daughters of Dr. Leon Goldman and Betty (Rosenburg) Goldman. Her father, a surgeon, was a son of Jewish immigrants from Poland; her Russian Orthodox mother was a former nurse and model.

Ms. Feinstein’s mother suffered from an undiagnosed brain disorder that produced irrational behavior and sudden furies. Dianne and her sisters, Yvonne and Lynn, were terrorized. Their mother tried to drown one daughter in a bathtub and once chased Dianne around a table with a carving knife.

Dianne grew up in the city’s affluent Presidio Terrace enclave, attended public grammar schools, and as a teenager chose to embrace Judaism. She graduated in 1951 from Convent of the Sacred Heart, an elite all-girls Roman Catholic high school, and from Stanford University in 1955 with a degree in history. She won a Coro Foundation internship and worked in the district attorney’s office.

In 1956, she married Jack Berman, a prosecutor in the office. They had a daughter, Katherine Anne, and were divorced in 1959. She married Dr. Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon 19 years her senior, in 1962. He died in 1978. In 1980, she married Richard Blum, a wealthy San Francisco investor and philanthropist, who had three daughters by a previous marriage, Heidi, Annette and Eileen.

Mr. Blum, a former chairman of the University of California Board of Regents and a former member of Mr. Obama’s Global Development Council, died in 2022 at 86. Ms. Feinstein is survived by her daughter, her stepdaughters and seven grandchildren.

In 1960, Gov. Edmund G. Brown of California noticed a paper that Ms. Feinstein had written on the administration of justice and named her to a state board that set prison terms and parole conditions for female felons. From 1967 to 1969, she led a watchdog panel on conditions in San Francisco jails.

In her first run for elective office, Ms. Feinstein spent lavishly on television advertising and won a seat on the 11-member Board of Supervisors in 1969. As the highest vote-getter by a wide margin, she automatically became board president. In nearly nine years on the board, she clashed with real estate developers, labor leaders, the pornography industry, feminists, gay groups and other powerful interests, winning a reputation for toughness.

“Dianne is almost unsuited to politics,” her friend Willie Brown, who was then speaker of the California State Assembly and later became mayor of San Francisco, said in 1990, when she ran for governor. “She’s too candid, too direct, too incapable of game playing.” That was a theme, too, in a 1994 biography by Jerry Roberts: “Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry.”

Nevertheless, in 1979 and 1983, Ms. Feinstein won full four-year terms as mayor of San Francisco. She proved to be a hands-on chief executive — appearing in newspapers and on television almost daily, racing to scenes of fires and water-main breaks, plunging ahead of her bodyguards into decrepit hotels where drugs and assaults were common, and taking what she called “walk-a-gripe” tours among the panhandlers and drunks of Market Street and the pornographic bookstores and theaters of the seedy Tenderloin.

She supported gay rights in housing and jobs and developed programs to fight AIDS, but she angered many advocates by vetoing domestic-partner rights legislation. She did not fight for causes espoused by women’s groups, and she named few women in hundreds of appointments to office. Critics said she was too pro-business. But she enlarged a police force to cut crime and oversaw a two-year, $60-million rebuilding of the cable car system, which reopened in 1984 in time for the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco.

Mr. Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee, first interviewed Ms. Feinstein and then various men before settling on Ms. Ferraro, a House member from New York City, as his running mate. President Ronald Reagan won the general election in a 49-state romp, but Ms. Feinstein was politically reinvigorated by the process. Limited to two full terms as mayor, she set her sights on California’s governorship in 1990.

She won the Democratic primary but narrowly lost the election to Senator Wilson. In a race largely financed by her third husband, an investment banker, she found it hard to differentiate her campaign positions — for abortion rights, environmental protections and the death penalty — from Mr. Wilson’s.

Two years later, Ms. Feinstein won a Senate seat in a special election, defeating John Seymour, a state senator who had been named to replace Mr. Wilson. She was sworn in after Election Day, two months ahead of Barbara Boxer, another Democrat, who took office in January 1993. The outcome gave California its first two female senators, a breakthrough for any state at the time.

In the Senate, Ms. Feinstein supported abortion rights, extended rights for crime victims and pushed for higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars. In 1999, after the House impeached President Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the Senate voted to acquit him, Senators Feinstein and Robert F. Bennett, a Utah Republican, failed on a procedural motion to rebuke Mr. Clinton with a Senate censure.

Ms. Feinstein introduced legislation that effectively banned assault weapons for a decade until the law expired in 2004. In 2013, months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Connecticut, she and Representative Carolyn McCarthy of New York failed in a bid to reinstate the assault weapons ban.

Ms. Feinstein was a key figure in a tumultuous 2018 Senate fight over Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court — first as a conduit for Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that the judge had sexually assaulted her when both were teenagers, then as a defender of the accuser’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Ms. Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was a feisty adversary to the panel’s chairman, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa. She was drawn, partly by chance, into one of the most momentous political battles in a generation after President Donald J. Trump nominated Judge Kavanaugh, a reliable conservative on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. With the committee and the Senate narrowly but firmly controlled by the Republicans, his confirmation seemed inevitable.

But Dr. Ford, a psychology professor at Palo Alto University and a researcher at Stanford, wrote to Ms. Feinstein, citing her allegations and asking for anonymity. Ms. Feinstein pledged to comply. After leaks to the news media, Dr. Ford voluntarily told The Washington Post that in 1982 a drunken Mr. Kavanaugh had pinned her to a bed at a teenage house party, tried to rip off her clothes and clapped his hand over her mouth to muffle her cries for help. It was essentially the same story she told the Senate committee under oath in September. Judge Kavanaugh angrily denied the allegations in his sworn testimony.

Unable to resolve what was widely regarded as Dr. Ford’s credible account and Judge Kavanaugh’s fiery denials, the committee — apparently confronted with Senate defections that could have doomed the nomination — agreed to a one-week delay before a final vote. Mr. Trump ordered the F.B.I. to investigate the claims of Dr. Ford and two other women who had come forward with allegations of sexual improprieties against Judge Kavanaugh. It was an interim victory for Dr. Ford and for Senator Feinstein, who had become her champion.

But the F.B.I. inquiry turned out to be one of limited scope. Investigators did not question Judge Kavanaugh or Dr. Ford and interviewed only nine people. Their report was not made public. The White House and Senator Grassley said the inquiry had turned up no evidence to corroborate the accusations against Judge Kavanaugh, who was confirmed by a 50-48 vote.

When the fight was over, some progressive activists contended that Ms. Feinstein had botched the confirmation process by keeping Dr. Ford’s accusations secret for weeks, until the fight was nearly concluded. Liberals said she had suppressed evidence that might have derailed the nomination, while Republicans said she had deviously coordinated an 11th-hour attack to sink it. To Ms. Feinstein, the explanation was simpler: She said she had just kept a promise to Dr. Ford to preserve the confidentiality of her letter.

In contrast to her role in the Kavanaugh hearings, Ms. Feinstein took a subdued and largely scripted role in mid-October 2020 during hearings over the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett, Mr. Trump’s nominee to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court.

Just before the hearings began, media reports, including one in The New York Times, raised questions about Ms. Feinstein’s age, 87, and reports of her diminished capabilities, quoting progressive Democrats as saying she seemed “bewildered or disengaged” at times and might not be able to hold her own as the senior Democrat on the committee. Defenders said her critics were confusing her patrician gentility for senility.

With the election just weeks away, Ms. Feinstein reminded the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, that he had pledged in 2018 to forgo hearings for a Supreme Court nominee if elections were impending in the last year of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

“Republicans should honor this word and their promise and let the American people be heard,” she said. “Simply put, we should not be moving forward on this nomination — not until the election has ended and the next president has taken office.” It was her most forceful statement of the hearings.

Ms. Feinstein’s involvement in the hearings was minimal and perhaps even detrimental to the Democrats’ cause. Her questioning of Judge Barrett meandered, and she did not condemn the Republican rush to confirm her before Election Day. At the end, Ms. Feinstein embraced Mr. Graham and thanked him for what she called “one of the best set of hearings I’ve participated in.” Progressive Democrats were outraged.

From the outset, the outcome was never in doubt. Republicans held a narrow but secure majority on the committee and in the Senate, and Judge Barrett’s confirmation was assured, as was the prospect of a 6-3 conservative majority on the court for years to come.

Two weeks after the election, Ms. Feinstein announced that she would relinquish the top Democratic spot on the Judiciary Committee in the new year, bowing to intense pressure by progressives in her party, who insisted that she was not up to leading a crucial panel at the forefront of the partisan war over the courts in the new Biden administration.

In 2021, reports that her husband might be interested in an ambassadorship renewed questions about Ms. Feinstein’s political future. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a friend, said, “I have zero expectation the senator is going anywhere.”

But almost two years later, on Feb. 14, she made it official: She would not seek another term. She was, however, emphatic that she intended to serve the remainder of her term, to 2025 — “so don’t hold your breath,” she told reporters in the Capitol. She also brushed aside questions about her fitness. “Absolutely,” she said when reporters asked if she was able to serve fully. “I think that’s pretty obvious.”

Earlier that day she had announced her decision to fellow members of the Senate Democratic caucus in what Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, described as a “heartwarming and tearful” address to the group. It prompted a standing ovation, the longest Mr. Schumer said he had ever witnessed at a caucus lunch.

Annie Karni contributed reporting.

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