Politician and public official, Dianne Feinstein (born 1933) was elected San Francisco's first female mayor in 1979 and became one of the nation's most visible and publicly recognized leaders. In 1992 she was elected to the Senate, becoming along with Barbara Boxer the first female senator from California.
Born in San Francisco on June 22, 1933, to a Jewish physician father (Leon Goldman) and a Catholic Russian-American mother (Betty Rosenburg Goldman), Dianne laid claim to having been brought up in both religious traditions. She attended a Roman Catholic school and a Jewish temple during her youth, which cultivated in her a deep respect for religious diversity. After having graduated from San Francisco's Sacred Heart High School she enrolled at Stanford where she studied history and political science and was active in student government. She was awarded a B.S. degree in 1955.
Combining marriage and family with a career, Feinstein was employed by a public affairs foundation interested in criminal justice. She worked as an administrative assistant for California's Industrial Welfare Commission and was appointed in 1962 to a four-year term on the state's Women's Board of Paroles. When her first marriage broke up, Feinstein withdrew temporarily from public life but emerged again on a county advisory committee on adult detention and on San Francisco's Mayor's Commission on Crime. During that period she also became the mother of one daughter, divorced her first husband, and organized her household tasks with a professional housekeeper in order to be free to concentrate on her public career. A second husband died in 1978, and she later married Richard Blum, an investment banker.
Early Public Career
Introduced to politics by a kindly uncle who began taking her to San Francisco Board of Supervisors (city council) meetings when she was 16, Feinstein recalled later that this was a catalyst that would turn her toward a career in public service. She won election to San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1969 and served on the board through the 1970s. Politically ambitious, Feinstein ran twice for the mayoralty, being defeated by Joseph Alioto in 1971 and finishing a poor third in George Moscone's 1975 election. In 1975 she was an early and firm supporter of presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, and when he won the White House, she lobbied actively for a cabinet post in Washington. Turned down in her quest for higher office, discouraged by the deaths of her father and her second husband, and afflicted by illness while abroad, Feinstein told writer Jerome Brondfield: "I decided I would not again be a candidate—for anything."
Concluding that her series of political and personal reversals had exhausted her future political prospects, Supervisor Feinstein scheduled a press conference to announce the same on what would become one of the most fateful days of her career, November 27, 1978. A half an hour before the anticipated announcement, a disgruntled former supervisor, Dan White, fatally shot Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a homosexual political activist. This grisly assault propelled board president Feinstein into the position of acting mayor, and a month later the board selected her to serve out the balance of Moscone's term. As mayor, Feinstein sought to calm the political turbulence and violence, balance the demands of conflicting pressure groups (she appointed another gay to replace Milk), and sought what she called an "emotional reconstruction" of the city's agitated polity.
Mayor in Her Own Right
Feinstein was elected to a full four-year term as mayor beginning in 1979. During her early tenure she followed an even-handed course which incorporated some off-beat cultural politics as well as conventional politics to appeal to the varied constituencies in the community. She also focused her attention on the problem of crime, took a keen interest in police staffing and policies, and succeeded in reducing the crime rates. The biggest challenge that she first faced was fiscal—the problem of balancing the budget exacerbated by cutbacks in state and federal spending for cities. A proponent of "management by objectives" and utilizing a high-powered group of business and labor leaders in the Mayor's Fiscal Advisory Committee, Feinstein brought the city budget under control, inaugurated enlightened management and personnel policies, and supported downtown development and economic expansion.
Her occasional indulgence in whimsy delighted and amused the citizenry. She once appeared at a ribbon cutting ceremony for a reclamation project in a black wool, knee-length, old fashioned bathing suit, prompted by a wager with the contractor. At a testimonial dinner at which she was guest of honor she applied the Heimlich maneuver to save a guest from choking on a piece of meat. Yet the city's colorful and dynamic mayor occasionally stumbled, as she apparently did in pushing through an ordinance banning handguns, which led to an attempt at recall. Arrayed against her was an anti-ban group that attracted other dissidents, including the homosexual interest group. This part of the community was angered by Feinstein's veto of a measure extending medical and welfare benefits to gays and live-in companions of unmarried city employees. Although the recall movement gathered sufficient signatures, the threat quickly dissipated when Mayor Feinstein easily survived the challenge by polling an 83 percent favorable vote in April and handily winning her second and last full term in the November 1983 election (mayors were limited to two terms by the city charter).
Although beginning her career as a liberal, Mayor Feinstein was considered a moderate on matters of lifestyle tolerance and a conservative on fiscal issues. In 1984 her city hosted the Democratic National Convention, which many of the mayor's backers hoped might lead to the nomination for the vice presidency, but it did not.
In 1990 Feinstein ran for governor of California against Republican candidate Pete Wilson. Although she ran a tough campaign, and one that was well-financed by her investment banker husband, she lost to Wilson by a narrow margin. Feinstein immediately re-focused and in early 1991 announced her intention to run for Pete Wilson's former Senate seat in the 1992 election. Along with fellow Democrat Barbara Boxer, Feinstein was elected to the Senate in 1992; the two became the first women Senators ever elected in California. Their election was part of a new women's revolution, since prior to January 1993 only 15 women had ever served in the Senate, and certainly there had never been more than two serving at any given time. After her reelection in 1996, Feinstein shared the floor with 8 fellow women Senators, representing a spectrum of political viewpoints. Of the change, Senator Tom Harkin said, "Just by being on the Senate floor, they've changed the male mindset."
As Senator, Feinstein took a firm stand on a range of issues: she was outspoken against President Clinton's certification of Mexico as being an ally in the drug war, she argued that China should be granted Most Favored Nation status, and argued against the leasing of a former Navy base to China's state-owned shipping company.
Further Reading on Dianne Feinstein
For her political career, see Jerome Brondfield, "She Gives Her Heart to San Francisco," in Readers Digest (July 1984); M. Holli and P. Jones, Biographical Dictionary of American Mayors (1981); and biographical materials from the Office of the Mayor. For the assassination and its aftermath, see New York Times and Chicago Tribune, November 28, 1978, and United States News and World Report, June 6, 1979. For the recall election, see Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1983.
For further reading on her race against Pete Wilson for Governor, see Celia Morris's book Storming the Statehouse: Running for Governor with Ann Richards and Dianne Feinstein (1992). For a discussion of her role as Senator, see Year of the Woman, by Linda Witt, Karen Paget, and Glenna Matthews.