U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat who was elected to the Senate in 1992, has died. She was 90.
Feinstein, the oldest sitting U.S. senator, was a passionate advocate for liberal priorities important to her state — including environmental protection, abortion 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.
Her tendency for bipartisanship early in her career helped her notch legislative wins. 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.
Feinstein’s health deteriorated rapidly in recent years, and critics had called for her to resign and enjoy retirement rather than be propped up in the Senate while American voters have called for term limit restrictions on lawmakers.
A fierce debater, 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.
In 1984, Feinstein was viewed as a vice presidential possibility for Walter Mondale but faced questions about the controversial 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.
She later lost the general election to Republican Pete Wilson, but 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.
Under Feinstein’s leadership, the intelligence committee conducted a wide-ranging, five-year investigation into CIA interrogation techniques during President George W. Bush’s administration, including waterboarding of terrorism suspects at secret overseas prisons. The resulting 6,300-page “torture report” concluded among other things that waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation techniques” did not provide key evidence in the hunt for bin Laden. A 525-page executive summary was released in late 2014, but the rest of the report has remained classified.
The Senate investigation was full of intrigue at the time, including documents that mysteriously disappeared and accusations traded between the Senate and the CIA that the other was stealing information. The drama was captured in a 2019 movie about the investigation called “The Report,” and actor Annette Bening was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Feinstein.
In the years since, Feinstein has continued to push aggressively for eventual declassification of the report.
“It’s my very strong belief that one day this report should be declassified,” Feinstein said. “This must be a lesson learned: that torture doesn’t work.”
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.”
Feinstein was born on June 22, 1933. Her father, Leon Goldman, was a prominent surgeon and medical school professor in San Francisco, but her mother was an abusive woman with a violent temper that was often directed at Feinstein and her two younger sisters.
Feinstein graduated from Stanford University in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in history. She married young and was a divorced single mother of her daughter, Katherine, in 1960, at a time when such a status was still unusual.
In 1961, Feinstein was appointed by then-Gov. Pat Brown to the women’s parole board, on which she served before running for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Feinstein’s second husband, Bert Feinstein, was 19 years older than she, but she described the marriage as “a 10″ and kept his name even after his death from cancer in 1978. In 1980, she married investment banker Richard Blum, and thanks to his wealth, she was one of the richest members of the Senate. He died in February 2022.
In addition to her daughter, Feinstein has a granddaughter, Eileen, and three stepchildren.
The Associated Press contributed to this article