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The career and legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein


The trailblazing California Senator Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90. She was the longest-serving female senator in U.S. history. Feinstein had planned to retire at the end of her term after suffering health complications that kept her out of Congress for months at a time. Feinstein was elected to the Senate in the Year of the Woman, 1992, making California the first state to be represented by two female senators. From member station KQED in San Francisco, Scott Shafer takes us through her legacy after serving three decades in Congress.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Dianne Feinstein's rise in politics began in 1978, when the city was jolted by two assassinations at City Hall. As president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, she announced the stunning news.


DIANNE FEINSTEIN: Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed.

SHAFER: When Mayor George Moscone died, Feinstein became mayor, a job she held for nine years. Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, a longtime political ally of hers, said Feinstein's handling of the assassinations crisis cemented her reputation.


WILLIE BROWN: It was a dramatic demonstration of how, in the face of total and complete disaster, somebody could stand up to settle the ship.

SHAFER: As mayor, Feinstein governed from the center, winning support from business groups, law enforcement unions and the city's more conservative voters. In a 2001 interview with C-SPAN, Feinstein attributed her political philosophy to her upbringing.


FEINSTEIN: My mother was a Democrat. My father was a Goldwater Republican. So we had a split family.

SHAFER: In 1984, San Francisco hosted the Democratic National Convention. Feinstein landed on the cover of Time magazine and made the shortlist to be presidential nominee Walter Mondale's running mate. By then, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging her city. The federal government under President Ronald Reagan mostly ignored it. As a young physician at San Francisco General Hospital, Paul Volberding often briefed Mayor Feinstein on what was needed to fight the disease.

PAUL VOLBERDING: I don't recall any moment in the early epidemic when I was told, no, we can't do that because we don't have the resources.

SHAFER: In fact, in the mid-1980s, San Francisco alone was spending more on AIDS than the entire federal government.

VOLBERDING: And that really goes to her leadership and a great credit to her.

SHAFER: In 1990, after leaving the mayor's office, Feinstein ran for governor. She lost narrowly to Republican Senator Pete Wilson. But a year later, the political climate changed with the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Welcome, Professor Hill.

SHAFER: When law professor Anita Hill accused Thomas of sexual misconduct when they worked together, the Judiciary Committee questioned Hill's integrity and motivation, as Democratic Senator Howell Heflin of Alabama did.


HOWELL HEFLIN: Are you a scorned woman?

SHAFER: Feinstein used those widely criticized hearings as a springboard to the U.S. Senate.


FEINSTEIN: Many people took a look at that all-male Judiciary Committee and frankly felt they badly botched the job.

SHAFER: Campaigning for the Senate in San Diego in 1992, Feinstein championed legislation to codify a woman's right to an abortion into federal law.


FEINSTEIN: The Congress must pass it, and the president must sign it. And if he vetoes it, we must override that veto.


SHAFER: Feinstein won the Senate seat, making history as part of the so-called Year of the Woman. In Washington, she championed gun control, overcoming stiff odds to pass a federal ban on assault weapons in 1994. Later that year, she almost lost reelection, but she developed a reputation as a workhorse, someone who did her homework and wasn't afraid to rock the boat. In 2014, over objections from the Obama administration, she took to the Senate floor to release a comprehensive report on torture by the CIA following the 9/11 attacks.


FEINSTEIN: Releasing this report is an important step to restore our values and show the world that we are, in fact, a just and lawful society.

SHAFER: Tom Blanton, who heads the National Security Archive at George Washington University, says the investigation Feinstein directed made the intelligence community accountable.

TOM BLANTON: I think the Senate torture report was probably the high point of Senator Feinstein's entire Senate career.

SHAFER: The election of Donald Trump in 2016 put Feinstein's brand of bipartisanship out of step with her own party. Democrats, who hoped Feinstein would step aside for a new generation of candidates, were disappointed, even angry, when she sought and won another six-year term in 2018 at the age of 85. In the fifth year of her final term in office, a serious bout of shingles forced Feinstein to miss nearly a hundred votes while she recovered at home in San Francisco. When she returned to Washington almost three months later, she appeared even more frail, with lingering side effects from shingles that limited her ability to work. Former aide Jim Lazarus believes her reasons for staying in office rather than enjoying retirement were intensely personal.

JIM LAZARUS: I just don't think she could see what else to do on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. She felt, you know, well enough and alert enough and strong enough to serve.

SHAFER: There is still more than a year left on Feinstein's six-year Senate term, leaving Governor Gavin Newsom with a decision. He could call a special election to fill out the remainder of her term or name someone to fill the seat in the meantime. Two years ago, after naming Alex Padilla to take Kamala Harris' Senate seat when she became vice president, Newsom said he would appoint a Black woman if Feinstein's seat opened up early. But he said more recently he would only name a caretaker, not someone who would run for the job. There's already a vigorous campaign underway for Feinstein's Senate seat and a primary election set for March on Super Tuesday. Three Democratic members of Congress - Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee - are vying for that seat. Supporters of Lee, who is Black, want Newsom to appoint her, but Newsom said he doesn't want to preempt the voters by giving her or anyone else a leg up.

Feinstein's most enduring legacy may be opening more doors for women in politics. Malia Cohen, who served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors before winning statewide office, remembers meeting Feinstein at City Hall on a third-grade field trip where Feinstein told her class one of them could be mayor one day.

MALIA COHEN: I believe that I'm standing on her shoulders, and I wouldn't be here without her leadership.

SHAFER: While some Democrats felt Dianne Feinstein was too moderate and stayed in office too long, she'll be remembered as a woman who led her city through a moment of extraordinary grief and became an effective champion for important national issues in the U.S. Senate. For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: October 10, 2023 at 9:00 PM MST
A previous headline misspelled Sen. Dianne Feinstein's first name as Diane.
Scott Shafer