On November 27, 1978, Dianne Feinstein told reporters that she had given up hope of becoming mayor of San Francisco after two defeats at the ballot box. Hours later, however, the job was passed to her following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and her Board of Supervisors colleague Harvey Milk.
As board president, Feinstein suddenly found herself acting mayor, responsible for breaking the shocking news to the city. “This was one of the toughest moments of my life, if not the toughest,” she said.
That moment thrust the seminal Feinstein, who died this week at age 90, into a national spotlight that he held for the next four and a half years.
Her life was filled with firsts: the first woman elected president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first female mayor. In 1992, she became the first woman to represent California in the U.S. Senate and was known for her expertise in male-dominated fields such as defense and intelligence, as well as for her significant (albeit short-lived) victories on gun control.
More recently, however, she has been criticized for not stepping aside during a hearing when she became visibly frail and unhinged. She missed the Senate for three months this year with shingles, prompting some in her party to call for her resignation. She declined but said she would not seek re-election when her term ends in 2024.
Feinstein, who was born on June 22, 1933, died Thursday hours after the final vote in the Senate. The vote was aimed at extending the government’s deadline to fight far-right Republicans over spending amid the shutdown.
The daughter of a famous surgeon, Feinstein and her two sisters grew up in San Francisco’s affluent Presidio Terrace neighborhood. They reportedly attended private schools and took horse riding, tennis and piano lessons. never let them see you crya biography of Feinstein by journalist Jerry Roberts.
But their mother, Betty, suffered from an undiagnosed brain disease and was prone to anger and even violence. Once she tried to drown one of the girls in the bathtub. “We lived on tenterhooks,” Feinstein recalled. “You’re not talking about it because there’s nothing you can do about it.”
In her adult life, Feinstein has shown resilience through electoral and personal setbacks, including a divorce from her first husband that left her as a single mother. Her other spouses, Bertram Feinstein, died in 1978, and Richard Blum, who died in 2022. She is also survived by a daughter, Katherine, 66, a lawyer and former judge.
Feinstein served as mayor of San Francisco for nearly a decade through turbulent years that included the onset of the AIDS crisis, a growing homeless population and dramatic demographic changes. Feinstein ran the liberal city as a centrist and was known for his hands-on approach to governance. According to Roberts’ book, she once performed mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a man in the seedy Tenderloin.
Despite at times angering the city’s liberals, she left office with a 70 percent approval rating in the city and a national reputation. Walter Mondale considered her as his running mate when he ran against Ronald Reagan for president in 1984, but ultimately chose Geraldine Ferraro .
After leaving the mayor’s office, Feinstein ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990 but was elected to the Senate two years later, in the so-called “Year of the Woman.” After being elected, she scored an early victory by authoring a federal bill to ban assault weapons in the wake of the San Francisco mass shooting. The proposal has come under attack from Republicans backed by the National Rifle Association.
“This lady from California needs to be a little more familiar with guns,” said Larry Craig of Idaho.
In response, Feinstein recounted the murder of her colleague in San Francisco. “I became mayor as a result of assassination,” she said. “I know what some of the guns were used for.” Her assault weapons ban went into effect in 1994 but expired 10 years later and was not renewed – a fact that gun control supporters still mourn.
She held senior positions in the Senate, including chairman of the Intelligence Committee. Her instincts tend to lean to the right on big issues, but she’s also willing to rethink them. After opposing same-sex marriage, she moved to support it and reversed her support for the death penalty. Feinstein voted for the invasion of Iraq but later pushed for the release of a 6,700-page report on the CIA’s practices during the “war on terror.” “My words don’t make me happy,” she said after the report was released.
It was classic Feinstein: tireless and demanding. “I don’t get ulcers,” she once boasted. “I give it to them.”