Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving senator, dies at 90

The death of Dianne Feinstein leaves vacant her powerful Senate seat, requiring Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a temporary successor.

Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving senator, dies at 90

Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving senator, dies at 90

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California has died at age 90, her office confirmed Friday.

Feinstein, a Democrat, was the oldest member of the Senate, where she served since 1992. She held her seat in the chamber longer than any other woman, and any senator from California.

She passed away Thursday night at her home in Washington, D.C.

"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," her chief of staff James Sauls said in a statement.

Feinstein's death ends a boundary-pushing political career that spanned more than half a century, and was studded with major legislative achievements on issues including gun control and the environment.

But In Feinstein's final years, she had increasingly visible health and memory issues, and as a result of those a conflict with fellow Democrats over her refusal to step down.

She planned to retire at the end of her current term in January 2025.

Feinstein's death leaves it to Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a temporary successor. Three leading Democrats are seeking the seat, Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) in the Senate subway on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, May 11, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Newsom in a statement called Feinstein "a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace."

"She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation," he said. "There is simply nobody who possessed the poise, gravitas, and fierceness of Dianne Feinstein."

"Jennifer and I are deeply saddened by her passing, and we will mourn with her family in this difficult time."

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on the chamber floor, "We lost a giant in the Senate."

"Today, there are 25 women serving in this chamber, and every one of them will admit, they stand on Dianne's shoulders," he said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the former speaker of the House, grew emotional as she told reporters, "It's a very sad day for all of us."

"May she rest in peace," Pelosi said.

President Joe Biden, who served with Feinstein for decades in the Senate, said in a statement, "She had an immense impact on younger female leaders for whom she generously opened doors."

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

A San Francisco native, Feinstein cleared a path for women in politics as she rose through the ranks of leadership.

After two failed bids for mayor, she was elected president of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1978, becoming the first woman to hold the title.

Feinstein was made acting mayor later that year, when then-Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, a colleague on the supervisors' board, were assassinated by former board member Dan White.

In later interviews, Feinstein recalled finding Milk's body and searching for a pulse by putting her finger in a bullet hole.

Feinstein was the first to announce the murders to the press. Her appointment a week later made her San Francisco's first female mayor.

The trauma of the murders remained with her for decades. 

"I never really talk about this," Feinstein said with a sigh when asked about the killings during a 2017 CNN interview.

Candidate Dianne Feinstein celebrates theprimary win June 2, 1992.

John O'Hara | San Francisco Chronicle | Getty Images

Her streak of firsts continued at the national level.

Feinstein lost a gubernatorial bid in 1990. But in 1992, she won a special election to the U.S. Senate, becoming the first California woman to hold a seat there.

Weeks later, Barbara Boxer, was sworn in as a senator, making California the first state to be represented in the Senate by two women at once.

Their elections came in the "Year of the Woman," when four Democratic women were elected to the Senate — more than doubling the chamber's female representation.

During Feinstein's tenure in the Senate, she wrote and championed the 1994 assault weapons ban, a landmark bill that was a continuation of a career-long effort to enact stricter gun controls. 

The legislation passed Congress and was signed by then-President Bill Clinton, albeit with major compromises including a 10-year sunset provision.

The ban expired in 2004 during the administration of President George W. Bush.

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. 

Nick Allen | Archive Photos | Getty Images

She also sponsored bills that protect millions of acres of California's desert, worked to create a nationwide AMBER alert network, helped reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act and fought for the release of a lengthy report detailing the CIA's torture practices, among other accomplishments.

Over her three decades in the Senate, Feinstein has generally been seen as a political moderate in her party.

In the 1990s and 2000s, that reputation made Feinstein highly popular — but much of that popularity eroded in the proceeding years as California's political tint shifted toward deeper shades of blue.

As her centrism increasingly fell out of fashion, Feinstein's standing in her final stretch in office was further diminished by a crescendo of skepticism about her mental fitness for the Senate.

A damning report from the San Francisco Chronicle in April 2022 featured unnamed Democratic colleagues of Feinstein fretting over her apparent decline in mental acuity.

Feinstein defended her ability to legislate while acknowledging that she had been going through an "extremely painful and distracting" period as her late husband, financier Richard Blum, had battled cancer.

By the time Feinstein announced that she would not seek reelection at the end of her term, multiple Democrats already had launched campaigns to succeed her.