Dianne Feinstein, California senator who broke glass ceilings, dies at 90

Dianne Feinstein, trailblazing California senator, dies at 90

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who shattered glass ceilings during her more than three decades in the U.S. Senate, has died at the age of 90.

Feinstein cast her last vote in the Senate late Thursday morning, according to Senate records. According to a statement by her chief of staff, James Sauls, she died at her Washington, D.C., home Thursday night.

"Senator Feinstein never backed away from a fight for what was just and right," Sauls said. "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."

She was the longest-serving woman in the Senate, as well as the longest-serving senator from California. But in recent months and years, questions about her health have clouded her governing profile. 

Feinstein's legacy 

Feinstein was the first woman to chair the Senate Rules and Administration Committee and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the latter of which she ran for six years. Feinstein served as the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was also the first woman to serve in that role, from 2017 to 2021. 

In the Senate since 1992, Feinstein fought for what she called "sensible gun laws," worked to preserve the environment and improve her state's water infrastructure, and she championed LGBTQ+ rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Feinstein authored and helped pass the federal assault weapons ban in 1994. The law expired in 2004, and along with other Democrats, including President Joe Biden, Feinstein advocated to reinstate it. 

The California senator also helped establish the nationwide Amber Alert network to alert the public to missing children. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, arrives for a Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, December 6, 2017, in Washington. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In 2014, Feinstein, as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a controversial and much-disputed 6,700-page report on the interrogation methods used by the CIA after the 9/11 terror attacks. The report, which took five years to complete and publish, found that the CIA's enhanced interrogation techniques did not lead to the collection of critical intelligence that disrupted a plot; that the CIA provided inaccurate information about the program and its effectiveness; and that it was far more brutal than the CIA led lawmakers and the public to believe once it was revealed in 2006. 

President Obama ended the practices portrayed within it early in his administration. But Feinstein's great hope in publishing the report was that the harsh light it shone on the CIA's practices in the early years after the 9/11 attacks would help ensure that those practices remained in the past. Asked by CBS News at the time whether it was fair to revisit what was done, given that the techniques are no longer used, she responded, "Read the report, and you tell me if you think this is how you want the country to behave."

Born in San Francisco on June 22, 1933, she was the daughter of a former model and a doctor. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor's degree in 1955. 

She served on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and rose to national prominence at a moment of crisis in the city — when Mayor George Moscone and fellow Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot and killed at City Hall by a disgruntled former colleague on Nov. 28, 1978. Feinstein heard the gunshots and saw the gunman leaving the supervisors' offices. 

"He whisked by, everybody disappeared. I walked down the line of supervisors' offices. I walked into one and found Harvey Milk – put my finger in a bullet hole trying to get a pulse," she told CNN in an interview in 2017. "But you know, it was the first person I'd ever seen shot to death, and you know when they're dead."

It was Feinstein who announced the news of the tragedy to the public. 

Remembering Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Feinstein succeeded Moscone as mayor and went on to hold the office for a decade. She lost a race for governor in 1990 before winning a special election for the Senate seat in 1992 — an election cycle that became known as the "Year of the Woman" for the record number of female candidates elected to Congress. 

Feinstein's health struggles

Feinstein was absent from the Senate for about three months earlier this year because of a difficult bout with shingles and complications related to the virus. Feinstein returned to the Senate in mid-May, appearing in public for the first time since February. She was wheeled into the Capitol, looking frail and with one eye nearly closed. She said in a statement that she'd made "significant progress" but was "still experiencing some side effects from the shingles virus." 

A few days later, her office said that her health issues were more serious than had been previously disclosed. The 89-year-old Democrat was suffering from encephalitis, or swelling of the brain, and a condition known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome

A conversation with reporters suggested she was not aware she had been absent for months. "I haven't been gone," she said, according to the Los Angeles Times and Slate. When asked whether she had been working from home, Feinstein said, "No, I've been here. I've been voting."

Her lengthy absence from Washington for health reasons had become a point of contention for Democrats, as confirmations of President Biden's judicial nominees slowed without her presence on the Judiciary Committee. Democrats needed all the votes they could get in a narrowly divided Senate, prompting some in her own party to call for her resignation.  

She was also briefly hospitalized in early August for a fall at her San Francisco home. 

In recent years, Feinstein's advancing age and apparent memory lapses increasingly raised questions about how much longer she could serve. She announced in early 2023 that she would not seek reelection for another term, setting up a political battle for her seat in 2024.

Who will replace Feinstein?

Under California law, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, can appoint a replacement until the 2024 election, and several prominent Democrats have already been announcing their intentions to run to replace Feinstein. 

Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County was the first to announce she would run for Feinstein's seat, even before Feinstein announced plans to retire at the end of this term. Reps. Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee also announced their bids for the seat. 

Tributes to Feinstein

President Biden proclaimed that flags would fly at half staff at all public buildings, military posts and naval stations as a mark of respect for Feinstein. The Senate draped Feinstein's seat in the chamber in black crepe and placed white roses on her desk on Friday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's voice cracked at points when he paid tribute to Feinstein on the Senate floor.

"Earlier this morning, we lost a giant in the Senate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein was one of the most amazing people who ever graced the Senate, who ever graced the country. She had so many amazing, wonderful qualities, wrapped up in one incredible human being," Schumer said. "She was smart. She was strong. She was brave. She was compassionate. But maybe the trait that stood out most of all was her amazing integrity. Her integrity was a diamond. Her integrity shone like a beacon across the Senate and across the country, for all to see and hopefully emulate."

"We look at that desk, and we know what we have lost," Schumer said, as he gestured to her vacant desk. He said, "The sign of a hero is someone who fights for others, who endures for others, no matter the cost, no matter the odds. And the sign of a friend is someone who stands by your side, to fight the good fight on the good days and on the bad."

His voice broke as he added, "Dianne Feinstein was all of this — and more: a friend, a hero for so many, a leader who changed ... the nature of the Senate, and who changed the fabric of the nation, America, for the better."

President Biden, who served for over 15 years in the Senate with Feinstein said he "had a front row seat to what Dianne was able to accomplish." 

"It's why I recruited her to serve on the Judiciary Committee when I was Chairman – I knew what she was made of, and I wanted her on our team," Mr. Biden said in a statement. "There's no better example of her skillful legislating and sheer force of will than when she turned passion into purpose, and led the fight to ban assault weapons. Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties. She's made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations."

Republican Sen. Thom Tillis, of North Carolina, was among the first of Feinstein's Senate colleagues to respond to news of her death. In a post on X, he called her "a trailblazer who lived an incredible life dedicated to public service" and praised her as "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."

In a statement, Newsom called Feinstein 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."

Sen. Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, recalled first meeting Feinstein in the early 1990s, long before he was a senator — he had been asked to drive her from the airport to a fundraiser.

"We talked for an hour about public service and local politics. At the time, she was a newly elected senator, but, as a former Mayor of San Francisco, she still had a mayor's sensibility," he said in a statement. "What struck me then was how much she cared about the people of the city and how the city was being run. She was still very rooted in her local government experience, something we both brought with us to the Senate. Dianne understood that, at the end of the day, politics is about people, and the decisions politicians make affect people's lives."

— Ed O'Keefe, Nikole Killion and Michal Kaplan contributed to this report. 


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