U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died on Thursday, was a true force of nature and the greatest senator in California history, a former staffer says. If there were more people like her in Washington D.C., America could find more common ground.
It was 10:30 p.m. when the phone rang. The BBC was calling from London and wanted to know if the rumors were true. Had Sen. Dianne Feinstein brokered a meeting between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to help mend fences after the brutal 2008 Democratic primary?
I did what any good press secretary would do: I said, “Let me check,” and immediately called my boss.
In a hushed voice, Feinstein told me, “Don’t answer your phone.” In fact, she had brought the two sides together with a little shuttle diplomacy, and in doing so, helped heal the wounds of the Democratic Party so that we could (mostly) unite to win back the White House.
It was big news at the time and she wanted little of the credit. It is also emblematic of Feinstein’s pioneering 54-year career of public service, which sadly ended when she died Thursday night at her home in Washington D.C. The 90-year-old U.S. senator believed that bringing people together could solve problems large and small – political, policy and national security.
Most people don’t remember this, but Feinstein cut her political teeth in the rough and tumble world of San Francisco politics. Her first race was for San Francisco supervisor in 1969. She went to Democratic Party leaders to let them know she was thinking of running. She was informed that there was already one woman on the board and that she would need to wait her turn.
As you might guess, she was having none of that. Not only did she run but she won her first race for political office.
In a subsequent election, Feinstein won with the most votes of any supervisor, which by tradition should have made her the board president. Yet she was again told that a woman couldn’t hold this role and that she should defer to a male colleague.
After working the other supervisors and winning their votes, she became the first woman to serve as Board of Supervisors president in San Francisco history. She later went on to become the first woman elected as mayor, too.
You see, Feinstein was a true force of nature. She was a political bulldozer and woe to anyone in her way.
The death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein means that Gov. Newsom has to decide who will fill her seat. He has said he would appoint a caretaker, not one of the three Democrats who are already running.
She would marshal facts, figures and arguments to make her case and wear down those on the fence. In 2004, while working to reauthorize the federal assault rifle ban (which she authored and was first enacted in 1994), Feinstein did what nobody thought possible. After talking to every Democratic senator and most Republicans, she won a vote in the Senate, 52-47. In the end, however, the effort failed because the National Rifle Association cynically worked with their Republican allies to pull down the reauthorization, essentially by sacrificing their own chief legislative priority along the way.
These are not isolated examples. This is what she did day after day, month after month, year after year.
The CIA did not want her to publish the Torture report – formally known as the Senate Intelligence Committee Study on CIA Detention and Interrogation Program – when she was chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. But she would not be dissuaded. She worked tirelessly to address every legitimate concern they had and made sure that the report saw the light of day.
She brought all sides of the California water wars together to forge various agreements that protected the environment, supported agriculture and ensured enough water for drinking.
She worked across the aisle to pass what at the time was the most significant legislation to reduce greenhouse gases by mandating dramatically increased fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.
The list goes on.
Toward the end of her career, her critics said that politics passed her by. While she wasn’t afraid to throw a punch, she was never the loudest, the most strident, the most political.
At her core and until the very end, she was a problem solver. She believed that if you understood a challenge well enough you could craft a practical solution that would make American lives better.
Sen. Feinstein will be deeply missed. For my money, she is the greatest senator in California history. I firmly believe that if there were more people like Feinstein in leadership roles in Washington D.C., we could find more common ground and make life better for more people in America.