A version of this story first ran in February of 2023 following Dianne Feinstein’s retirement announcement
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death on Friday marks the end of a long and influential career in San Francisco and statewide politics, and she both won and lost several major elections on her way to becoming the first woman to represent California in the upper chamber. Feinstein, who announced in February that she would not seek reelection, began her time in public office in an era when the Golden State was an electoral battleground, but she would go on to benefit from the dramatic swing to the left in the 1990s that turned California into solidly Democratic turf.
Feinstein began her public service in 1960 at 27 years old when Gov. Pat Brown appointed her to a post on the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole after she impressed him with a paper on the justice system. While Feinstein would eventually become one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, she recounted that as a single mother, this post just paid “enough to get by on.” Feinstein won elected office for the first time in 1969 when she earned a spot on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and she didn’t need to give up her seat when she waged an unsuccessful 1971 race for mayor.
Feinstein came in third again in the 1975 mayoral contest that was won by George Moscone, but she was reelected to the Board of Supervisors once again two years later. She was serving as president of the body in 1978 when former colleague Dan White assassinated Moscone and Harvey Milk, a fellow supervisor who was one of the first gay elected officials in America. Feinstein, who found Milk’s body, had just returned to work after recovering from an illness she’d picked up while in the Himalayas. She said in 2008, “I still believe that if I could have been there for that three weeks, I could have stopped it … Now, who knows? Who knows?”
Feinstein was automatically elevated to the mayor’s office following Moscone’s death, and the city’s first woman leader largely impressed residents with her performance during a difficult time for the city. She decided to seek a full term in 1979, saying later that she believed that “as a lame duck, I couldn’t hold the city together,” but she only outpaced Supervisor Quentin Kopp 47-45 in the first round of voting. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, a longtime Feinstein ally who himself spent decades as one of the most influential politicos in the state, deployed his local political network to help her in the runoff, a contest she won 54-46.
Feinstein was popular during what would be a nine-year tenure, though she very much had her critics. Feinstein, who overall had a good relationship with the city’s large LGBTQ community during the AIDS crisis, notably vetoed a domestic partners law: Local gay activist James Haas memorably said of the mayor, who was already developing a moderate reputation, “I honestly think she couldn’t care less what we do in bed. It’s just that she wants everybody in bed by 11 p.m.”
A group called the White Panthers, which identified as “Marxist, Leninist, Maoist, Castroist,” forced a recall against Feinstein in 1983, but she beat it back 82-18, just months before she easily won a final term. Walter Mondale, the following year, considered making her his running mate, but he opted for New York Rep. Geraldine Ferraro instead. Feinstein, who was termed out in 1987, herself once said she wanted to be “the first female chief executive of this country,” and in 1990, she campaigned to be the first woman to serve as governor of California.
Feinstein went up against Attorney General John Van de Kamp, who had the important state party endorsement, in a primary where they both argued the other was insufficiently supportive of abortion rights. (California wouldn’t adopt the current top-two primary system until after the 2010 elections.) Van de Kamp ran to Feinstein’s left and initially looked like the frontrunner, but he was held back by his dull campaign style.
Feinstein, who self-funded part of her effort, also helped turn around what looked like a stalled campaign with ads emphasizing her leadership in 1978, as well as a commercial declaring, “John Van de Kamp, who still opposes the death penalty and takes contributions from the Hillside Strangler lawyers, finally admits he made a mistake.” Feinstein won the nod 52-41, but that effort left her without much money ahead of a difficult general election battle against Republican Sen. Pete Wilson.
The GOP nominee wasted little time using his war chest to attack Feinstein and San Francisco’s budget deficit. The Democrat made up ground after she tied Wilson to the unpopular outgoing GOP governor, George Deukmejian, but it wasn’t enough: Wilson won 49-46 after a closely watched contest, a race that marked the first and last time Feinstein would lose statewide. Indeed, she bounced back quickly when she entered the 1992 special election to take on Republican John Seymour, whom Wilson had picked to replace him in Washington, D.C.
This time, her campaign went smoothly. Feinstein was the primary frontrunner against state Controller Gray Davis, a future governor who tried to turn things around late with an infamous ad comparing her to wealthy tax cheat Leona Helmsley. Feinstein instead turned in a 58-33 victory against Davis, and she benefited in the fall from George H.W. Bush’s struggles in the state, as well as Wilson’s unpopularity at the time. The Democrat also made sure to remind voters that Seymour had voted to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court and against a family-leave bill.
Feinstein unseated Seymour 54-38 as Bill Clinton was becoming the first Democrat to carry the state’s electoral votes since 1964. That win came the same night that fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer won a regular six-year term in what the media dubbed the Year of the Woman: However, because Feinstein was sworn in just after Election Day, she was the one who got to make history as the first woman and Jewish person to represent California in the Senate.
Feinstein, though, had another tough fight ahead of her during the 1994 GOP wave against Rep. Michael Huffington, who self-funded $28 million (roughly $57 million when adjusted for inflation) in his quest to deny the new senator a full term. Feinstein accused Huffington of trying to buy the election, but his offensive helped him close what had started out as a yawning gap in the polls. That campaign also took place as conservatives, including Feinstein’s old foe Wilson, were promoting Proposition 187, which would have denied services to undocumented immigrants. The rough climate, though, wasn’t quite enough to sink Feinstein, who turned back Huffington 47-45.
That close race turned out to be the last time that Feinstein had to worry about a Republican opponent, however. She easily beat Rep. Tom Campbell 56-37 as Al Gore was decisively carrying California, and she didn’t face any serious opposition during her next two campaigns. The senator, though, enraged progressives in 2017 when she said of Donald Trump, “I think we have to have some patience … The question is whether he can learn and change. If so, I believe he can be a good president.”
Those comments helped earn Feinstein an intra-party challenge from Kevin de León, a former state Senate leader who tried to rally the left against her. However, while de León made it to the general election, he had a tough time raising a serious amount of money in this ultra-expensive state at a time when national Democratic donors had their attention focused elsewhere.
Feinstein won her final term 54-46, with much of de León’s support coming from red counties that were used to voting against the senator. (De León was elected to the Los Angeles City Council two years later, and he’s refused to resign after being recorded making bigoted remarks in a conversation from 2021.) Feinstein herself spent the last year of her tenure dealing with serious questions about her cognitive health, and she announced in February that she would not seek reelection.