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Politics & Policy

‘We lost a giant’: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, trailblazer from San Francisco, dies at 90

Sen. Dianne Feinstein listens during the Senate Judiciary Committee on July 20, 2023. | Source: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Dianne Feinstein, who rose from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the mayor's office and then the U.S. Senate for over three decades, has died at age 90, her office confirmed Friday morning.

Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate and its oldest member, marked 30 years in office last year but had been facing calls to resign amid health problems and her advancing age.

The Democratic senator died at her Washington, D.C., home on Thursday night, according to a statement from her office.

Feinstein was a passionate advocate for liberal priorities important to her home state of California—including environmental protection, reproductive rights and gun control—but was also known as a pragmatic lawmaker who reached out to Republicans and sought middle ground.

READ MORE: Who Will Complete Dianne Feinstein’s Term in U.S. Senate? Gov. Gavin Newsom Must Decide

President Joe Biden called Feinstein "a true trailblazer and a cherished friend."

"In San Francisco, she showed enormous poise and courage in the wake of tragedy, and became a powerful voice for American values. Serving in the Senate together for more than 15 years, I had a front-row seat to what Dianne was able to accomplish," the president said in a statement. "Often the only woman in the room, Dianne was a role model for so many Americans—a job she took seriously by mentoring countless public servants, many of whom now serve in my Administration."

Tributes poured in from politicians on both sides of the aisle.

READ MORE: What We Know About Dianne Feinstein’s Final Hours

"She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace," said California Gov. Gavin Newsom. "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. ... There is simply nobody who possessed the strength, gravitas and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein."

Sen. Thom Tillis, a Republican from North Carolina, said Feinstein "was one of the most effective legislators in recent memory because of her willingness to work across the aisle in good faith in order to solve complex problems. It was a honor to serve with her."

Mayor London Breed speaks about the passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein next to a painting of Feinstein during a press conference at City Hall in San Francisco on Friday. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, in a statement posted to X/Twitter, said: "As the first woman to serve as mayor, she showed everyone growing up in this city, including me, what could be accomplished by a strong and determined leader. Dianne Feinstein didn’t just break glass ceilings. She opened up new horizons."

Breed said Feinstein's legacy as one of San Francisco’s true leaders will be admired for generations to come.

At a City Hall China flag-raising event on Friday morning, Breed said Feinstein was the first to establish a sister city between the U.S. and China—San Francisco and Shanghai. Breed said Feinstein was a trailblazer of U.S.-China relations.

From left: Xin Zheng, wife of Consul General Zhang, Mayor London Breed, Consul General Jianmin Zhang, Chief of Protocol Maryam Muduroglu and community leader Florence Fang pose together at an event. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown posted to X/Twitter that Feinstein was a wonderful friend of the Brown family.

"I got to know her well over the years and came to deeply appreciate her intensity, devotion to duty and unfailing solicitude for her friends," said Brown on X. "Dianne was utterly unique and set the bar for those who follow."

From the Board of Supervisors to the Senate

Feinstein had a long career as a public servant that launched here in San Francisco, where she served as the Board of Supervisors' first female president in 1970. 

She ran for mayor twice and lost, but assumed the seat—the first woman to do so—after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978.

Dianne Feinstein, then a member of the Board of Supervisors, made an unsuccessful run for mayor in 1971. | Source: Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

She was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1992.

“It has been a great pleasure to watch more and more women walk the halls of the Senate,” said Feinstein in a statement last year. “We went from two women senators when I ran for office in 1992 to 24 today—and I know that number will keep climbing.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in November 2020. | Source: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Rumors of Feinstein’s mental decline have circulated for years but amped up last year, with some calling for her resignation. A poll in May found that nearly two-thirds of Californians across the political spectrum thought she should step down.

Feinstein, whose term was to expire in 2024, had said she would not seek reelection next year. However, she had refused to step down, even after she developed a serious case of shingles that sidelined her from the U.S. Capitol for months earlier this year.

Who Will Newsom Appoint To Fill Feinstein's Seat?

Newsom, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier this month, said that should Feinstein vacate her seat, he would not appoint any of the three candidates currently vying for her seat—U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter—and would instead make an “interim appointment.” 

Tributes to the Democratic powerhouse began pouring in on social media and via statements early Friday morning.

"For decades, Senator Feinstein was a pillar of public service in California: from San Francisco’s City Hall to the United States Capitol," Rep. Nancy Pelosi said in a tribute to her fellow Democrat. "Her indomitable, indefatigable leadership made a magnificent difference for our national security and personal safety, the health of our people and our planet, and the strength of our Democracy."

"I'm deeply saddened by the passing of Dianne Feinstein. She blazed trails for women in politics and found a life's calling in public service," posted Hillary Clinton. "I'll miss her greatly as a friend and colleague and send my condolences to all who loved her."

Dianne Feinstein during an interview in San Francisco on Nov. 4, 1969. She was elected to the Board of Supervisors that year. | Source: Joe Rosenthal/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

Early Years in San Francisco

Dianne Emiel Goldman was born on June 22, 1933. Her father was a surgeon and professor at UC San Francisco. She had two sisters.

She graduated from Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in 1951 and from Stanford University in 1955 with a degree in history. She went on to work as a fellow at the Coro Foundation for two years. She was then appointed to the California Women's Parole Board in 1960 by Gov. Pat Brown.

Feinstein married Jack Berman, an attorney, in 1956, but they divorced just a few years later. She wed Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon, in 1962.

Feinstein was elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1969 and served nine years, making two unsuccessful runs for mayor during that time.

Her husband, who was two decades her senior, died in 1978, leaving Feinstein with their teenage daughter, Katherine. Rocked by the loss, Feinstein had been considering leaving politics when Milk was slain, leaving the mayor's seat open and changing Feinstein's life forever.

The Dalai Lama visits San Francisco at Mayor Dianne Feinstein's City Hall office on Sept. 26, 1979. | Source: Gary Fong/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

As mayor, she presided over the renovation of the city's cable car system and oversaw the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She survived a recall attempt in 1983, and despite being a relative moderate in a famously liberal city, Feinstein was generally seen as popular and effective.

Feinstein made an unsuccessful run for governor in 1990, losing to Pete Wilson. Wilson appointed Republican John Seymour to the Senate to replace himself. But in 1992, Feinstein won a special election to the Senate to complete Wilson's unexpired term.

In Congress, Feinstein considered the enactment of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 one of her signature achievements; that law prohibited the sale, manufacture and import of military-style assault weapons. It expired in 2014.

In 2009, Feinstein became the first woman to chair the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a position she held for six years. In 2017, she became the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee—the first woman to assume that role. She held that position until 2021. 

She also was a major force in creating legislation to increase the fuel efficiency of cars and was a leading voice in the effort to legalize gay marriage and ensure LGBTQ rights. She also pointed to legislation that aimed to preserve the Mojave Desert, Lake Tahoe and California’s forests as a major accomplishment. 

Feinstein's third husband, Richard Blum, whom she married in 1980, died in 2022.

Senate Colleagues Offer Tributes

In Washington on Friday morning, Feinstein's Senate colleagues placed a crystal vase of white roses atop a black shroud draped over her desk, The Hill reported.  California Sen. Alex Padilla was among those offering words of remembrance.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer choked up on the Senate floor as he asked senators to observe a moment of silence for Feinstein.

"Earlier this morning, we lost a giant,” Schumer said.