Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a trailblazer and the longest-serving woman in the Senate, dies at age 90

WASHINGTON — Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a vocal advocate of gun control measures who was known for trying to find common ground with Republicans during her three decades in the Senate, has died, according to several sources familiar with the matter.

She was 90.

Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, the longest-serving female senator and the longest-serving senator from California, announced in February that she planned to retire at the end of her term. She had faced calls for her resignation over concerns about her health.

Diane Feinstein Exiting Voting Booth
Incumbent Mayor Dianne Feinstein emerges from a voting booth after casting her ballot in a runoff election in San Francisco in 1979.Bettmann Archive file

After she announced her retirement, President Joe Biden hailed his former Senate colleague, calling her “a passionate defender of civil liberties and a strong voice for national security policies that keep us safe while honoring our values.”

“I’ve served with more U.S. Senators than just about anyone,” he said in a statement at the time. “I can honestly say that Dianne Feinstein is one of the very best.”

After Feinstein missed votes in late February, her spokesperson said on March 1: “The senator is in California this week dealing with a health matter,” and “hopes to return to Washington soon.”

The California Democrat was a vocal advocate of gun control measures, championing the assault weapons ban that then-President Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994, and pushing for restrictive laws since the ban’s expiration in 2004.

W5WRYF U.S Senator Dianne Feinstein, of California demonstrates an AK-47 military style assault weapons during a press conference on Capitol Hill March 22, 1998 in Washington D.C,. The Republican lead House of Representatives voted to lift the assault-type weapons ban by a vote of 239-173, but President Bill Clinton Administration has vowed to veto the measure.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein demonstrates an AK-47 military-style assault weapon on Capitol Hill in 1998.Richard Ellis / Alamy file

As chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Feinstein led a multiyear review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation program developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to legislation barring the use of those methods of torture. 

A centrist Democrat, she was known for trying to find common ground with Republicans, sometimes drawing criticism from her party’s liberal members. She parted from them on a number of issues, including opposing single-payer, government-run health care and the ambitious Green New Deal climate proposal, which she argued was politically and fiscally unfeasible.

Those tensions with progressives built to a head during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett in October 2020 when Feinstein hugged Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and thanked him for how he had conducted the hearing. The move prompted swift calls for Feinstein’s ouster as the ranking member of the panel, and she ultimately did step down.

Feinstein preferred following Senate traditions than changing them, though she voiced openness in 2021 to potentially altering filibuster rules if Democrats were unable to pass key parts of their legislative agenda, including voting rights reforms, gun control and a reauthorization of the landmark Violence Against Women Act.

First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., meet reporters, accompanied by female members of the Senate, after a meeting on Capitol Hill on March 11, 1993 to discuss health care issues.
From left, first lady Hilary Rodham Clinton and Sens. Barbara Mikulski, Dianne Feinstein and Patty Murray after a meeting on Capitol Hill in 1993 to discuss health care issues.John Duricka / AP file

Feinstein faced some pressure to resign in recent years to make way for younger lawmakers. Last April, Feinstein pushed back against a news report in the San Francisco Chronicle citing multiple anonymous colleagues expressing worries that she was mentally unfit to serve. “I remain committed to do what I said I would when I was re-elected in 2018: fight for Californians,” she said then. 

Democratic Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee are running for Feinstein’s seat.

Feinstein was hugely influential in state and national politics, and her support held great weight. She expressed to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, for example, that she wanted Alex Padilla, then California’s secretary of state, to fill Kamala Harris’ seat in the Senate after Harris was elected vice president, a request that Newsom fulfilled. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., leaves the Senate Chamber following a vote at the Capitol on Feb. 14, 2023.
Feinstein leaves the Senate Chamber following a vote at the Capitol on Feb. 14.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

Before her election to the Senate in 1992, tragedy helped fuel her rapid rise in San Francisco and California politics. On Nov. 27, 1978, Feinstein, then-president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, became acting mayor following the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first gay elected official in California. She later became the first woman elected mayor of San Francisco.

In fact, it was Feinstein who made the shocking announcement of the assassinations on the steps of City Hall. Three decades later, she was portrayed in the film Milk, starring Sean Penn.

Thrice married, Feinstein was predeceased by her husband, investment banker Richard Blum, who died last year. She is survived by her daughter, Katherine Feinstein, a San Francisco County Superior Court judge; her son-in-law, Rick Mariano; and her granddaughter, Eileen Feinstein Mariano.