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Dianne Feinstein made history as a popular San Francisco mayor before storied Senate career

Life in San Francisco launched Dianne Feinstein to national prominence
Life in San Francisco launched Dianne Feinstein to national prominence 03:09

Before she became a groundbreaking U.S. Senator, Dianne Feinstein, who died Friday at the age of 90, made history as the first woman to become mayor of her hometown of San Francisco.

A graduate of Stanford University, Feinstein began her career in politics when she was appointed by Gov. Pat Brown to the California Women's Parole Board in 1960. Nine years later, she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and was elected president of the board in 1978.

Dianne Feinstein At An Event
San Francisco Board of Supervisors member (and future mayor and U.S. Senator) Dianne Feinstein during an unspecified event, San Francisco, California, June 1974. Getty Images

During her tenure as supervisor, Feinstein ran for mayor of San Francisco twice unsuccessfully. But Feinstein became acting mayor on November 27, 1978, following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk by former supervisor Dan White. Feinstein assumed the role as she was president of the Board of Supervisors.

Feinstein also vaulted to national prominence on that day when she spoke to reporters and was the first person to announce the news of assassinations to the public, her words sending a shockwave through the gathered throng of reporters.

1978: San Francisco Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announces Moscone-Milk assassinations by KPIX | CBS NEWS BAY AREA on YouTube

The Board of Supervisors later voted to appoint Feinstein as mayor on December 4, 1978, and she became the city's first female mayor. Feinstein's leadership helped the city emerge from a dual crisis; San Francisco was still reeling from the mass suicide in Guyana by followers of the SF-based People's Temple cult nine days before the city hall assassinations.

One of her first accomplishments as mayor was to overhaul San Francisco's famous cable car lines, helping win federal funding for most of the work. The cable car system was shut down for repairs in 1982 and reopened just in time for the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. By that time, Feinstein was already a rising star in national Democratic politics, having been given a prominent speaking role during the 1980 Democratic National Convention.  

Dianne Feinstein, American Politician
Dianne Feinstein, her arms outstretched in celebration, in her office after she was elected mayor of San Francisco, at San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco, California, circa 1978. Getty Images

Feinstein oversaw policies that led to an increase in the number of high-rise buildings in San Francisco and was known for being a moderate Democrat in one of the most liberal cities in the world, often forging consensus on issues across the aisle. She helped lead the city through the worst of the AIDS/HIV crisis, however, before then she had received the ire of the city's large LGBTQ+ community in 1982 when she vetoed domestic partner legislation. 

"But then she came around, and she in fact became one of the strongest voices in favor of gay and lesbian marriage," said former KPIX reporter Hank Plante. "Here's the thing I hope that people remember through the clutter, back from the old days ... Mayor Dianne Feinstein's AIDS budget for the city of San Francisco was bigger than President Reagan's AIDS budget was for the entire nation, and that was true for two years in a row. So that's where her heart is and was."

Watch: Former KPIX reporter Hank Plante reflects on Sen. Dianne Feinstein's legacy 02:56

Feinstein survived a recall attempt in 1983; she remained a popular mayor for her ten-year tenure and was named the most effective mayor in the country by City & State magazine in 1987.

Feinstein ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in a 1992 special election. becoming California's first female U.S. senator. It was an election cycle that became known as the "Year of the Woman" for the record number of female candidates elected to Congress.  

Feinstein was re-elected five times and in the 2012 election, she received 7.86 million votes, the most popular votes received by any U.S. Senate candidate in history.

President Joe Biden on Friday honored his former Senate colleague following news of her death.

"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," Biden 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," Biden said Friday. "Dianne was tough, sharp, always prepared, and never pulled a punch, but she was also a kind and loyal friend, and that's what [First lady] Jill and I will miss the most."

"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," said Feinstein's chief of staff James Sauls in a statement Friday. "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."  

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