Do you know Dianne?
From fights over Confederate flag to perhaps another Year of the Woman, the iconic California senator has been at the center of her party’s evolving fortunes
On a sunny day in mid-October, California’s senior U.S. senator did something she hadn’t in nearly two decades. In the City by the Bay where she was born, Dianne Feinstein stepped onstage with her opponent to make her case for another six years.
“This is a historic opportunity,” her Democratic challenger, Kevin de León noted somewhat dryly. “I think the last time Sen. Feinstein had an opponent on the same stage was about 18 years ago.”
It’s true—the 85-year-old senator hasn’t defended her incumbency in a debate since 2000. After prodding from de León’s campaign, however, the candidates came together just shy of three weeks to Election Day.
But blink and you may have missed it.
The exchange, hosted by the Public Policy Institute of California, took place during a Wednesday lunch hour at the nonpartisan think tank’s Bechtel Conference Center. The San Francisco center was at capacity, but voters who wanted to watch live online had to pre-register.
De León’s campaign promoted the event on social media. Feinstein’s didn’t, but posted recaps that named her victorious in what wasn’t really a debate, but rather a moderated Q&A that didn’t allow the candidates to respond to one another. As they each discussed their vision for representing the state in the Trump era, their areas of divergence became clear. Feinstein encouraged voters to keep Democrats in office, calling elections key to making progress.
“You can march, you can filibuster, you can talk all night. It doesn’t change anything,” she said. “What changes things are elections. … If we can deliver a Democratic majority in one house [of Congress] even, then we change the dynamic.”
Republicans currently hold the majority in both houses.
De León, meanwhile, emphasized the need for California’s representatives to lead on issues the state’s voters prioritize, like immigration and climate change. He touted his own record in these areas as a state senator and senate president pro tem.
“We need new leadership that’s on the front lines and not on the sidelines,” he said.
Once, Feinstein might have been the candidate pushing progressive change.
Feinstein used to be a pioneer. She became the first woman to serve as San Francisco’s mayor in the late 1970s. Less than a generation later, she was one of four women voted into the U.S. Senate in a historic moment dubbed the Year of the Woman. She currently sits on the Senate Judiciary and Senate Intelligence committees and has championed gun regulation. But her long political career and wealth tend to hurt her image with those in the left wing of the party.
“If there is a Bernie Sanders impact on the [Democratic] party, it is this cadre of young, progressive, outspoken activists who don’t feel bound by the old rules,” said Eric Bauman, California Democratic Party chair. “[They] want somebody who … will go and shake things up.”
The California Democratic Party voted this summer to endorse de León.
De León is making a plea to middle- and working-class voters, with a campaign ad centered on the story of his single immigrant mother, who “worked her fingers to the bone” to build a better life for him. The ability to relate to everyday Americans is something Feinstein lacks.
But the truth is, that may not matter.
The most recent pre-election PPIC poll shows Feinstein leading by 16 points. Her history in Washington—as well as her heightened name recognition for her recent role in the Senate Judiciary hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, will likely withstand the challenge on November 6.
Feinstein was born into a wealthy family in 1933 and grew up in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood. Today, she’s the second-richest senator, with a value of at least $58.5 million, according to a March article in the Los Angeles Times.
Her political career is lengthy: She was first elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors in 1969. Back then, several Bay Area newspaper articles highlighted her pleasing physical appearance in their coverage of the first woman on the board in more than 50 years.
Feinstein’s mayoral run began in the wake of tragedy. She inherited the position when then-San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated at City Hall. Feinstein, who was the one to find Milk’s body, was indelibly shaped by the moment and has often publicly recalled how that moment formed her fight for gun regulation.
Attorney Louise Renne temporarily filled Feinstein’s open supervisor seat, and was later appointed city attorney—another first for women in San Francisco politics. Renne said Feinstein made appointments that uplifted women and other marginalized groups.
“She was very forward-thinking, in terms of making sure women and persons of color were appointed to positions where they hadn’t been before,” Renne said.
In 1987, City and State Magazine recognized Feinstein as Mayor of the Year. Early the next year, the Christian Science Monitor covered her in a story. In the article, Feinstein discussed her political aspirations and the challenges women in politics faced at the time.
“Strength in women is very often critically evaluated, and strength in men is not,” she said.
At times, she flexed that strength in ways that clashed with her constituency.
In 1984, some speculated that Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale would select Feinstein as his running mate during the San Francisco-hosted Democratic National Convention. In a move to try to win over southern Democrats, she erected the Confederate flag outside San Francisco City Hall—just one day after Ku Klux Klan members were acquitted in the deaths of activists in the Greensboro Massacre.
With a crowd cheering him on, activist Richard Bradley climbed the pole wearing a Union uniform to tear down and destroy the flag, according to the SF Bay View. Feinstein had it replaced and Bradley took it down again. After a few rounds of this strange game of whack-a-mole, Bradley, who is black, was jailed and Feinstein briefly demanded he pay for the flag. She backed down after public pressure. Mondale bypassed Feinstein for Geraldine Ferraro.
Her checkered history with the city also came in the form of a recall effort in 1983, with organized citizens upset by a handgun ban she’d proposed. She defeated that effort. She also occasionally sparred with the city’s LGBTQ community, ordering undercover sting operations to shut down bath houses in the 1980s and voting against a measure that would have extended health benefits to same-sex couples. But at the same time, she was also praised for securing HIV research funding.
She teased at a run for governor in the Christian Science Monitor article, saying it would probably be necessary to get to the White House.
“A few years in Congress probably won’t do it,” she said. After a failed run for California governor in 1990, however, she decided to run for Congress. That move would launch a 26-year career in DC politics and coincided with greater representation of women in Congress.
Stephanie Schriock vividly remembers watching Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony in the hearings to confirm Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas. It was the eve of her first opportunity to vote.
“I was one of those young women, a teenager, who went, ’Why aren’t there any women asking questions?’”
There were only two women in the Senate at the time—Nancy Kassebaum, a Republican from Kansas, and Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland.
The next year, during the 1992 presidential election, women ran for office in record numbers. Four were elected, half from California. One was Barbara Boxer; the other, Feinstein.
Two years into her first term, Feinstein authored the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. The topic remains a key issue for Feinstein as mass shootings have continued to plague the United States. She discussed the topic in March on the Fight Back with Barbara Boxer podcast.
“When I saw the faces of the 6- and 7-year-old children who were mowed down at Sandy Hook, I thought: ’This will never happen again,” she said. “But it did.”
Today, Schriock is the president of EMILY’S List, an organization that supports the campaigns of pro-choice Democratic women. As she watched the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings of Kavanaugh before he was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice last month, it felt like déjagrave; vu but with one important difference. The woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, had the support of a diverse cast of Democrats.
“You see Amy Klobuchar and Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris,” Schriock said. “You saw diversity of race and gender on the Democratic side.”
As the senator who received the letter outlining Ford’ allegations, Feinstein was a controversial centerpiece of the hearings—criticized from both sides of the political aisle. During the San Francisco event, she said she did her best as a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee to stop the nomination.
“Although Democrats are not in control and therefore do not have the vote, it became very important to be able to say what we thought,” she said then.
But de León and other left-leaning progressives believe maintaining the status quo in Washington will not do Californians justice.
Freshman U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna agrees Feinstein doesn’t align with the wave of progressive energy.
“I don’t think she represents the changing face of California, or is going to be at the forefront of the new progressive movement of the party,” said Khanna, who represents the Bay Area district that includes Silicon Valley.
Khanna added that, while he recognizes her achievements, she’s not the voice California Democrats need in Washington.
“One can have both respect and admiration for her, but also think that it’s time for a new voice to lead a new California.”