U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein Dies at 90

Feinstein is remembered by colleagues as a “trailblazer” throughout her more than half a century in politics.
September 29, 2023
Sen. Dianne Feinstein on April 20, 2021 (Photo by Oliver Contreras-Pool/Getty Images)

Dianne Feinstein, California’s first female United States Senator, died on Thursday night at her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 90.

Feinstein’s Chief of Staff, James Sauls spoke of the Senator’s virtues in an official statement this morning:

“Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was just and right. At the same time, she was always willing to work with anyone, even those she disagreed with, if it meant bettering the lives of Californians or the betterment of our nation. There are few women who can be called senator, chairman, mayor, wife, mom and grandmother. Senator Feinstein was a force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state. She left a legacy that is undeniable and extraordinary. There is much to say about who she was and what she did, but for now, we are going to grieve the passing of our beloved boss, mentor and friend.”

Feinstein’s 54-year career in public office was marked by fighting the epidemic of gun violence, standing up for environmental preservation, and bringing federal funding to California projects, and providing resources to protect women and children from domestic violence.

In recent years, Feinstein’s declining health became more apparent. Despite calls to step down, in February of this year, Feinstein announced her intention to serve out her term but not seek reelection in 2024.

At the time, Feinstein released a statement listing some of her proudest accomplishments over her three-decade career in the U.S. Senate, from “the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban to the 2014 CIA torture report, preserving Lake Tahoe and the Mojave Desert to passing the first significant global warming legislation, from protecting student athletes from abuse to protecting consumers from harmful chemicals, and more recently improving our efforts to combat wildfire and drought, we have improved the lives of millions.”

At the time of her passing, Feinstein was the oldest member of Congress, the third-most tenured U.S. Senator, and the most tenured Senate Democrat. Following the retirement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)earlier this year, Feinstein was eligible to be elected the president pro tempore of the Senate, a position that typically goes to the most senior member of the majority party. However, Feinstein declined, and U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Wash.) currently holds the title. While the Pro Tempore position is largely symbolic these days, the holder of the seat is third in line in the presidential line of succession (after Vice President and Speaker of the House of Representatives).

Feinstein was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969. She would hold that position until November 1978, when she was appointed acting mayor following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone. She was elected to a full term in 1983 and served until 1988. In 1990, Feinstein ran for Governor, losing to Republican Pete Wilson by 3.5%.

Dianne Feinstein n her office after she was elected mayor of San Francisco circa 1978. (Photo by Nick Allen/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Feinstein first came to the U.S. Senate in 1992 after defeating incumbent Republican U.S. Senator John Seymour. Seymour had been appointed to fill the Senate seat vacated by Pete Wilson, who resigned to become the 36th Governor of California. In that 1992 election, then-U.S. Representative Barbara Boxer was elected to her first term in the Senate. Boxer’s election meant that California would join Wisconsin in having a fully-Jewish U.S. Senate delegation (Wisconsin Democrats Herb Kohl served from 1989-2013 and Russ Feingold from 1993-2011).  It was also the first time any state was represented by two female senators.

Feinstein was reelected to four more terms in the U.S. Senate. In 2018, Feinstein defeated then-State Senator Kevin de Léon (D), despite the California Democratic Party denying Feinstein its endorsement.

Throughout her Senate career, Feinstein held numerous leadership positions, including Chair of the Senate Rules Committee, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Chair of the Senate Narcotics Caucus.

In 2018, after a string of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, Feinstein and U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) drafted and passed legislation to update the Church Arson Prevent Action Act which made threats to religiously-affiliated institutions’ property a federal crime.

On other issues regarding Israel, in 2019, Feinstein voted against Israel Anti-Boycott legislation, saying in a statement, “Despite my strong support for Israel, I couldn’t support legislation that infringes on Americans’ First Amendment rights. Free speech is the foundation of our democracy and this bill would erode that foundation. I encourage my colleagues in the House not to support this bill as written.”

In 2020, Feinstein urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to “preserve the viability of a two-state solution by not annexing lands in the West Bank.” Later that summer, Feinstein welcomed normalized relations between Israel in the United Arab Emirates.

In 2022, Feinstein joined a bipartisan group of senators to urge the Biden Administration “to maintain the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) position at the three-star rank in the face of reported plans to downgrade it to a non-general or flag officer.”  Based in Jerusalem, the USSC serves as a crucial liaison between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

She was a career-long advocate for the environment and protecting California’s wildlife and landscapes, including Preserving the Headwaters Forest Act (1999), the California Desert Protection Act (1994), adding to Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 2000 and the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act (2000).

In 1994, Feinstein authored the Assault Weapons Ban, which placed a 10-year ban on the manufacture and sale of military-style assault weapons, including UZIs and AK-47s as well as banning copycat versions of the banned weapons, any weapon with a combination of specific assault features and ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.”

In 2003, Feinstein and U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) successfully petitioned President George W. Bush to enact an Executive Order that resulted in the National AMBER Alert Network to help law enforcement find abducted children. That same year, Feinstein and U.S. Senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) passed a bill authorizing the Federal Trade Commission to establish a national “Do Not Call” telemarketing registry.

Feinstein oversaw the six-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program, culminating in the December 2014 release of the report’s executive summary and subsequent anti-torture legislation. That same year, Feinstein led the Senate Intelligence Committee in creating the Bipartisan Benghazi Report, which found that “the attacks were preventable based on security vulnerabilities and a known terrorist threat” and included “18 recommendations to increase security at U.S. facilities abroad.”

In 2015, Feinstein and U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) drafted provisions to “increase penalties for buyers of sex acts from trafficking victims, expand reporting on trafficking prosecutions, require training on targeting and prosecuting buyers, expand wiretapping authority to cover all human trafficking offenses and strengthen crime victims’ rights.”

In 2017, Feinstein and U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) authored “The Trafficking Victims Protection Act to renew existing programs that make federal resources available to human trafficking survivors and establish new prevention, prosecution and collaboration initiatives to help bring the perpetrators to justice.” It passed the Senate unanimously.

In 2021, “Senator Feinstein worked with U.S. Representative Ted Lieu (D-Los Angeles) to secure enactment of the West LA VA Campus Improvement Act,” authorizing the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to use funds generated through land use-agreements at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs campus for the development of supportive housing and services.

And just last year, Feinstein co-authored the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act which funds initiatives to help protect women from domestic violence and sexual assault.

Dianne Feinstein was born Dianne Emiel Goldman on June 22, 1933 in San Francisco to surgeon Leon Goldman and former model Betty Rosenburg Goldman. Feinstein said she and her sisters Yvonne and Lynne were often subjected to their alcoholic mother’s brutal physical abuse while growing up.

Though she identified as Jewish, Feinstein graduated from San Francisco’s Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in 1951. She earned a degree in history from Stanford University in 1955.

In 1956, she married Jack Berman; their daughter, Katherine Anne Feinstein, was born in 1957.

Feinstein divorced Berman in 1959 and married neurosurgeon Bertram Feinstein. Bertram passed away from illness in 1978. She married investor Richard Blum in 1980 and they remained married until his passing in 2022.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein participates in a reenacted swearing-in with her husband Richard C. Blum and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on January 3, 2013 (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden served in the U.S. Senate with Feinstein from her first day in 1992 until he became Vice President in 2008. He described her as “a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace. 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. Every race she won, she made history, but her story wasn’t just about being the first woman in a particular political office, it was what she did for California, and for America, with that power once she earned it. That’s what she should be remembered for.”

On X, California Governor Gavin Newsom (D)wrote that“Dianne Feinstein was many things — a powerful, trailblazing U.S. Senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos,But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a powerful, effective leader looks like.”

Newsom said this year that in the event that Feinstein’s seat becomes vacant before the expiration of her term in January 2025, he would appoint a black woman to fill the seat for the remainder of the term. While no appointment has been made, the top three polling candidates for Feinstein’s Senate seat in 2024 all released tributes to Feinstein this morning.

U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said that Feinstein’s legacy is “unmatched,” adding that Feinstein “single-handedly pushed an assault weapons ban over the finish line, and never gave up her fight to end gun violence. She fought powerful agencies to investigate and uncover torture – and made sure it would never happen again. She helped protect California’s natural beauty and preserve its lands for generations. And she always fought for LGBTQ rights and women’s equality throughout her career.”

U.S. Representative Katie Porter (D-Irvine), another candidate for Feinstein’s Senate seat said that “as the first woman to represent California in the Senate, Dianne Feinstein paved the way for generations of women to serve—including me. She left her mark in tough fights against gun violence, torture, and homophobia, and that legacy will live on.”

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) said “California lost a trailblazer and a giant today. Senator Feinstein broke glass ceilings for women in politics and fought fearlessly for safer communities free of gun violence. My deepest condolences go out to her family and loved ones.

Politicians from from both sides of the aisle shared statements eulogizing Feinstein. Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said that he “admired” Feinstein and “will miss her … It has been an honor to serve with her in the Senate and on the Judiciary Committee. No one was more welcoming when I came to the Senate than she, and no one was a better example. She was tough, incredibly smart, and effective. Always willing to work across the aisle to get things done, she was a person of unquestioned integrity. I admired her and will miss her in the Senate.”

The Senate Majority Leader, Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said “this morning, we lost a giant in the Senate. Senator Dianne Feinstein was one of the most amazing people who ever graced the Senate, whoever graced the country.” Mitt Romney, (R-Utah) called Senator Feinstein “a trailblazer — a giant of the Senate — who dedicated her life to public service. Ann and I give our condolences to her loved ones, colleagues, and staff as they mourn her passing,” And former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that “Dianne Feinstein, right from the start, was an icon for women in politics.”

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