Dianne Feinstein, 1933-2023

A trailblazer is gone at 90.

Associated Press, “Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California dies at age 90

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a centrist Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1992 in the “Year of the Woman” and broke gender barriers throughout her long career in local and national politics, has died. She was 90.

Three people familiar with the situation confirmed her death to The Associated Press on Friday.

Feinstein, the oldest sitting U.S. senator, was a passionate advocate for liberal priorities important to her state — 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.

She was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and became its first female president in 1978, the same year Mayor George Moscone was gunned down alongside Supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor. Feinstein found Milk’s body.

After Moscone’s death, Feinstein became San Francisco’s first female mayor. In the Senate, she was one of California’s first two female senators, the first woman to head the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first woman to serve as the Judiciary committee’s top Democrat.

Although Feinstein was not always embraced by the feminist movement, her experiences colored her outlook through her five decades in politics.

“I recognize that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right,” she told The Associated Press in 2005, as the Judiciary Committee prepared to hold hearings on President George W. Bush’s nomination of John Roberts to replace Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

“So I must tell you, I try to look out for women’s rights. I also try to solve problems as I perceive them, with legislation, and reaching out where I can, and working across the aisle,” she said.

Her tendency for bipartisanship helped her notch legislative wins throughout her career. But it also proved to be a liability in her later years in Congress, as her state became more liberal and as the Senate and the electorate became increasingly polarized.

A fierce debater who did not suffer fools, the California senator was long known for her verbal zingers and sharp comebacks when challenged on the issues about which she was most fervent. But she lost that edge in her later years in the Senate, as her health visibly declined and she often became confused when answering questions or speaking publicly. In February 2023, she said she would not run for a sixth term the next year. And within weeks of that announcement, she was absent for the Senate for more than two months as she recovered from a bout of shingles.

Amid the concerns about her health, Feinstein stepped down as the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel after the 2020 elections, just as her party was about to take the majority. In 2023, she said she would not serve as the Senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.

One of Feinstein’s most significant legislative accomplishments was early in her career, when the Senate approved her amendment to ban manufacturing and sales of certain types of assault weapons as part of a crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994. Though the assault weapons ban expired 10 years later and was never renewed or replaced, it was a poignant win after her career had been significantly shaped by gun violence.

Feinstein remembered finding Milk’s body, her finger slipping into a bullet hole as she felt for a pulse. It was a story she would retell often in the years ahead as she pushed for stricter gun control measures.

She had little patience for Republicans and others who opposed her on that issue, though she was often challenged. In 1993, during debate on the assault weapons ban, Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, accused her of having an insufficient knowledge of guns and the gun control issue.

Feinstein spoke fiercely of the violence she’d lived through in San Francisco and retorted: ‘’Senator, I know something about what firearms can do.”

Two decades later, after 20 children and six educators were killed in a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas similarly challenged Feinstein during debate on legislation that would have permanently banned the weapons.

“I’m not a sixth grader,” Feinstein snapped back at the much younger Cruz — a moment that later went viral. She added: “It’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here a long time.”

Feinstein became mayor of San Francisco after the 1978 slayings of Moscone and Milk, leading the city during one of the most turbulent periods in its history. Even her critics credited Feinstein with a calming influence, and she won reelection on her own to two four-year terms.

With her success and growing recognition statewide came visibility on the national political stage.

In 1984, Feinstein was viewed as a vice presidential possibility for Walter Mondale but faced questions about the business dealings of her husband, Richard Blum. In 1990, she used news footage of her announcement of the assassinations of Moscone and Milk in a television ad that helped her win the Democratic nomination for California governor, making her the first female major-party gubernatorial nominee in the state’s history.

Although she narrowly lost the general election to Republican Pete Wilson, the stage was set for her election to the Senate two years later to fill the Senate seat Wilson had vacated to run for governor.

Feinstein campaigned jointly with Barbara Boxer, who was running for the state’s other U.S. Senate seat, and both won, benefiting from positive news coverage and excitement over their historic race. California had never had a female U.S. senator, and female candidates and voters had been galvanized by the Supreme Court hearings in which the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Anita Hill about her sexual harassment allegations against nominee Clarence Thomas.

Feinstein was appointed to the Judiciary panel and eventually the Senate Intelligence Committee, becoming the chairperson in 2009. She was the first woman to lead the intelligence panel, a high-profile perch that gave her a central oversight role over U.S. intelligence controversies, setbacks and triumphs, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to leaks about National Security Agency surveillance.


Feinstein sometimes frustrated liberals by adopting moderate or hawkish positions that put her at odds with the left wing of the Democratic Party, as well as with the more liberal Boxer, who retired from the Senate in 2017. Feinstein defended the Obama administration’s expansive collection of Americans’ phone and email records as necessary for protecting the country, for example, even as other Democratic senators voiced protests. “It’s called protecting America,” Feinstein said then.

That tension escalated during Donald Trump’s presidency, when many Democrats had little appetite for compromise. Feinstein become the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel in 2016 and led her party’s messaging through three Supreme Court nominations — a role that angered liberal advocacy groups that wanted to see a more aggressive partisan in charge.

Feinstein closed out confirmation hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett with an embrace of Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and a public thanks to him for a job well done. “This has been one of the best set of hearings that I’ve participated in,” Feinstein said at the end of the hearing.

Liberal advocacy groups that had fiercely opposed Barrett’s nomination to replace the late liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were furious and called for her to step down from the committee leadership.

A month later, Feinstein announced she would remain on the committee but step down as the top Democrat. The senator, then 87 years old, did not say why. In a statement, she said she would “continue to do my utmost to bring about positive change in the coming years.”

Given her advanced age and declining health, I’m shocked that neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post—nor even the San Francisco Chronicle—had canned obits ready to go. The above AP report was the only one I found on the WaPo website and this is all the NYT has at the moment:

New York Times, “Senator Dianne Feinstein Dies at 90

Senator Dianne Feinstein, the trailblazing Democratic power broker who served in the Senate for 30 years, died on Thursday night, according to a family member.

In recent years, Ms. Feinstein, 90, had suffered from frail health and memory issues that made it difficult for her to function alone and prompted calls for her to step down, which she consistently rejected.

While I was never a fan of her politics, there’s no denying that she had a remarkable career. It’s truly a shame that she hung on too long, with stories of her declining mental acuity overshadowing her decades of public service.

UPDATE: Steven and I were posting near-simultaneously and he had similar thoughts. I’ve added them below to keep the comments on a single thread.

The news is so fresh that not all of the pre-prepared obituaries have hit all the major news sites, although NBC has theirs up: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a trailblazer in U.S. politics and the longest-serving woman in the Senate, dies at age 90.

Feinstein had a long and distinguished career, although I would argue that at the end it became a cautionary tale about staying in office too long.

Since this is a politics blog, I will note that the Governor of California will appoint a replacement, although I am uncertain at this time of the timetable. It is unfortunately true that this comes at a difficult time for the Congress, given the budget situation.

FILED UNDER: Obituaries, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mister Bluster says:

    She was a member of the Board of Supervisors of The City and County of San Francisco in 1974-‘75 when I lived there. I remember her from that time as my wheelchair bound friend Joe was active in the Bay Area disabled crowd and communicated with the Board about access to buildings and other concerns.
    May she rest in peace.

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    And like RBG, her ultimate legacy is going to be cementing far right control of the federal courts because she couldn’t deal with her own mortality.

  3. MarkedMan says:

    It was unfortunate that she ended the way she did, but in 5-10 years that will be a footnote and her larger record will be what is talked about.

  4. gVOR10 says:

    A proud legacy, spoiled by hanging on too long. An RBG story.

    Newsom will appoint a replacement. But Republicans let it be known they wouldn’t allow her seat on the judiciary Committee to be filled if Feinstein resigned. I assume that’s still stands in current circumstances. (Senate rules. I have no idea what mechanism allows them to block a replacement.)

  5. Michael Cain says:

    @gVOR10: I’ve seen all sorts of wild speculation about what the rules are for this. It’s the Senate, so of course there will be rules, and exceptions to rules, and so on. Schumer and McConnell have probably already talked to the Parliamentarian.

  6. Mister Bluster says:

    Supreme Leader of the Republican Party Kim Jong Trump appointed the most recent occupants of vacant seats of the United States Supreme Court. Citizens should remember this as they flail away at the legacies of deceased Public Servants.

    Non scientific, amateur opinion poll.
    Should President Biden pack the United States Supreme Court?
    A.) Yes.
    B.) Yes.
    C.) Why not?

  7. Gustopher says:

    I expect that she will somehow serve out the remainder of her term.

  8. Lounsbury says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I rarely agree with you, but indeed yes, the radical reaction given extra cards to use. Highly regrettable. Equally that reflexive identity politics pwas trotted out by some to claim unfairness in face of readily apparent severe issues, not mere partisan smears.

  9. DK says:



  10. Gustopher says:

    @Lounsbury: Diane of California purloined St. Bernard’s Folly, buttressed by Intello Bobo staffers and masked by mentions of misogyny and accusations of agism — a triumph of the scaffolding supporting the body, ultimately accomplishing nothing. Not The Sid who rode against the Moops.

    Laminated lamentations of lemurs. An “aye” for an eye, reified.


  11. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: My gawd, you do have a flair for this, I must say!

  12. DK says:

    Top Republican senators said Friday they won’t try to prevent Democrats from replacing the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on the Judiciary Committee after the vacancy left Democrats without a majority on the key panel.

    Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, told NBC News that “there’s no doubt in my mind” Democrats will be able to fill her spot on the panel once there is a successor appointed to her Senate seat.

    Translation: after the funding/shutdown drama is resolved, there will be no additional tranche of Biden judicial nominees, as the Beltway turns to grandstanding for 2024.

  13. Kathy says:




  14. Lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: Rather boringly childish and lacking panache, although if it makes you feel better for your Lefty echo chambre preferences, do carry on.

  15. Gustopher says:

    Rep. George Santos tweets/extrudes:

    My husband Matt and I are heart broken by the news of the passing of Senator Feinstein.

    Sen. Feinstein was a trail blazer who dedicated over 30 years of service to her country.

    Our condolences to the Feinstein family as they grief this grave loss.

    A very fun rollout of the husband.

  16. just nutha says:

    @Gustopher: I would have thought X-trudes but I will defer to more X-perienced Xitters on the point.

  17. Gavin says:

    @Gustopher: George, half a point for the humblebrag, but you forgot to describe the accomplishments of this man. Did he bring water to 4 parched villages in Chad while on leave from the Army where he won a Purple Heart and also wrote a children’s book that won a Newbery all before the age of 24?