Influential Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein dies at 90

She was the oldest sitting senator and a passionate champion of gun control and civil liberties in her 30-year career in the upper house

Senator Dianne Feinstein
Senator Dianne Feinstein on Capitol Hill in 2022.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (AFP)
Macarena Vidal Liy

One of the most representative personalities of the U.S. Congress has passed away. Veteran California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90, while still active in a 30-year career in the Senate in which she broke numerous glass ceilings, from chairing the influential Senate Intelligence Committee — a position never before held by a woman — to defending gun control.

Feinstein, who was the oldest sitting senator, was characterized by a generally moderate and pragmatic approach, willing to find common ground with the more centrist Republicans. But that moderation turned into a passionate defense of her state’s priority causes, from environmental protection to reproductive rights.

“Dianne made her mark on everything from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties. She’s made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations,” said President Joe Biden, who was Feinstein’s colleague in the Senate for 15 years, in a statement.

“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Dianne Feinstein. She blazed trails for women in politics and found a life’s calling in public service. I’ll miss her greatly as a friend and colleague and send my condolences to all who loved her,” tweeted former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Feinstein rose to prominence in U.S. national politics when she became mayor of San Francisco in 1978 following the assassinations of her predecessor, George Moscone, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, who were shot to death by another former supervisor, Dan White. At the time, Feinstein was chairing the Board of Supervisors, the city-county legislature, and she rushed to Milk’s office when she heard the shots. As she felt for his pulse she touched a bullet hole.

Barack Obama Dianne Feinstein and Herb Kohl leave the Senate floor in 2007.
Barack Obama Dianne Feinstein and Herb Kohl leave the Senate floor in 2007. Jonathan Ernst (Reuters)

That experience would mark the rest of her political career, in which the fight for gun control, especially assault weapons, was one of her great banners. She drafted the federal rule that banned assault weapons from 1994 until Congress refused to renew it in 2004, during George W. Bush’s term in office. Her attempts to achieve tougher gun control measures failed to bear fruit, despite an ever-increasing escalation in the number of shootings and casualties. Not even after the massacre of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012: her proposal to ban assault weapons met with stiff opposition among Republican lawmakers and gun rights advocates.

She was elected to the Senate in 1992, a year that is popularly known in the hallways of the institution as the “Year of the Woman”: half a dozen of them were elected for the first time to the upper house, the highest number ever recorded at the time. She was re-elected five times.

During her extensive career, she held numerous influential positions. Among them, the chairmanship of the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2009, a position from which she oversaw allegations of torture by the CIA in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. In 2014, she was responsible for the release of the 525-page executive summary of a report detailing secret detention and interrogation practices overseas using “coercive interrogation techniques, in some cases amounting to torture” against 119 alleged foreign terrorists following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Those interrogations, which included waterboarding, sleep deprivation, painful stress positions and other techniques, “are a stain on our values and our history,” she said. The 6,300-page report, which except for the summary remains classified, concluded that the use of these methods did not generate any valuable information to prevent attacks or capture terrorist leaders. “It’s my very strong belief that one day this report should be declassified,” said the senator at the time.

At the same time, in her role as chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee she also defended U.S. surveillance programs exposed in 2013 by a National Security Agency contractor named Edward Snowden. “It’s called protecting America,” the senator said about the electronic surveillance of telephone data and internet communications.

In other cases, she incurred the wrath of progressives by supporting the Iraq war in 2002 or the Patriot Act passed by George W. Bush, although she criticized him for authorizing spying on U.S. residents without court approval. Some liberal activists called on her to resign in 2020 after she hugged Republican Senator Lindsey Graham following a Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for Republican President Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. Coney Barret took the seat of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a benchmark of American progressivism, despite strong opposition from the left.

Although she was not always praised by the feminist movement, she spoke enthusiastically about the need for equality. “I recognize that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right,” she told The Associated Press in 2005. “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.”

In February of this year, and after a series of health problems that left her seemingly confused at times in public, she announced that she would not run for reelection. A shingles infection and complications from the disease kept her away from Congress for three months, until May.

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