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 board 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 Senate judiciary committee's top Democrat.
Although Feinstein was not always embraced by the feminist movement, her experiences coloured 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.
Decided not to run again
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 from 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.
Assault weapons ban
One of Feinstein's most significant legislative accomplishments was early in her career, when the Senate approved her amendment to ban the 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.
Two decades later, after 20 children and six educators were killed in a horrific school shooting in Newtown, Conn., first-term Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas 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."