Dianne Feinstein Has Died at Age 90
The longest-serving woman senator recently suffered from shingles and memory issues. Now, Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint a replacement to take her seat.CongressPolitics
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Dianne Feinstein died Thursday night at age 90, capping off an incredible 50-plus-year political career with a fizzle of an ending. The woman was a trailblazer when she entered local politics in the 1960s but, felled by illness and age, her last months in the Senate were marked by repeated debate on if she should resign. Feinstein’s prolonged absence from the Senate this year was due to shingles (my heart went out to her because wow, shingles sucks). Her staff was informed of her passing at 9 a.m. Friday, per The New York Times.
Now, California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) will appoint a temporary successor. The temporary choice, who would serve until January 2025, may be hard to select. Numerous high-profile Californians are already running for Feinstein’s seat in 2024, including Democrat Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee. In March 2021, Newsom told MSNBC host Joy Reid that he would nominate a Black woman to the position.
Feinstein was born and raised in San Francisco to a family of immigrants from Poland and Russia. She graduated from Stanford in 1955 and, in 1969, won her first election, this one to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
During this time, she would run unsuccessfully for mayor but eventually was elected president of the board. She would be named acting mayor in November 1978 after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk. On December 4, 1978, she was inaugurated as the city’s first woman mayor.
This pattern—of unsuccessful elections followed by bigger offices—trailed Feinstein throughout her career. She tried to be California governor in 1990 but lost to the Republican candidate. But that Republican had to resign from the U.S. Senate to move into the governor’s mansion. This led to her winning the 1992 special election to the Senate as a part of the Year of the Woman, which people like to say was spurred by the horrendous treatment of Anita Hill by the men of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Feinstein immediately assumed office and became California’s first female senator, the state’s senior senator, and the first Jewish lady elected to the Senate. (Feinstein would be a lot of firsts, even though Barbara Boxer won her election to the Senate that same year and shared many of those characteristics.) She would be reelected five more times.
Feinstein remained California’s senior senator until her death. Her last year of public service put a heavy emphasis on the senior part of her title. She missed weeks of Senate hearings and votes because she was recovering from shingles (something, again, I would not wish on my worst enemy). After missing more than 90 votes during her recovery, Feinstein returned to Capitol Hill in March. It wasn’t the smoothest of returns.
But before that recovery period, there had been whispers of Feinstein’s mental decline. Several weeks before her husband’s death in February 2022, one California Democratic representative told the San Francisco Chronicle that they walked away from a multi-hour conversation with Feinstein worried. The lawmaker had to reintroduce themselves multiple times and Feinstein kept repeating small talk.
“I have worked with her for a long time and long enough to know what she was like just a few years ago: always in command, always in charge, on top of the details, basically couldn’t resist a conversation where she was driving some bill or some idea. All of that is gone,” the lawmaker told the Chronicle. “She was an intellectual and political force not that long ago, and that’s why my encounter with her was so jarring. Because there was just no trace of that.”
Multiple senators, staffers, and that lawmaker said more than a year ago that Feinstein wasn’t capable of representing the millions of people in California. “There’s a joke on the Hill, we’ve got a great junior senator in Alex Padilla and an experienced staff in Feinstein’s office,” a staffer for a California Democratic congressperson told the Chronicle.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (then Minority Leader) had to ask Feinstein twice to step aside as head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
New Yorker’s Jane Mayer reported:
Feinstein, meanwhile, was surprised and upset by Schumer’s message. He had wanted her to step aside on her own terms, with her dignity intact, but “she wasn’t really all that aware of the extent to which she’d been compromised,” one well-informed Senate source told me. “It was hurtful and distressing to have it pointed out.” Compounding the problem, Feinstein seemed to forget about the conversations soon after they talked, so Schumer had to confront her again. “It was like Groundhog Day, but with the pain fresh each time.” Anyone who has tried to take the car keys away from an elderly relative knows how hard it can be, he said, adding that, in this case, “It wasn’t just about a car. It was about the U.S. Senate.”
There were also stories about Feinstein being unable to recognize her colleagues. Politico reported that roughly a year before the 2022 Chronicle story, Feinstein completely mistook Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) for Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Ga.). Apparently, Scott was a good sport who played along with Feinstein saying she had been rooting for the Democratic senator. “Thank you so much,” Scott, a current Republican presidential hopeful, reportedly told Feinstein. “Your support means a lot.” (This ignores the racist implications of mixing up Black people.)
Then, there was the very public incident earlier this year when Feinstein didn’t seem to know her retirement announcement had been, well, announced.
It’s really unfortunate that a woman who authored the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 will be remembered for aging so ungracefully out of government. She broke a lot of ground for women members of Congress. She chaired the Rules and Intelligence committees and was a ranking member of the Judiciary Committee.
I hope Feinstein’s memory is a blessing to those who knew her. And maybe a lesson to other aging politicians to gracefully resign while they still can.