‘When she digs in, she's tough’: Reflecting on Feinstein’s political impact

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) participates in the confirmation hearing of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge John Roberts, Washington D.C. Photo by Shutterstock.

Senator Dianne Feinstein has announced she will not seek reelection in 2024 and will retire at the end of her term. It’s the culmination of more than three decades in California politics. The assassination of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978 rocked her political trajectory and eventually made her the first woman mayor of San Francisco. A decade and a half later, she became the state’s first female U.S. senator, and almost immediately made a mark. She authored the 1994 federal assault weapons ban and shined a light on CIA torture before and after 9/11.

But she also faced criticism, including how she handled the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Speculation has also swirled around her reported cognitive decline.

Feinstein’s time as San Francisco's mayor established her place as a moderate voice in a liberal place, says Jim Newton, editor at Blueprint and public policy and communications professor at UCLA.

“She's not particularly bound by party affiliation, although she's clearly a Democrat and always has been. She is a thinker of her own and that has allowed her to make alliances and build friendships and connections across the aisle and across society. Notwithstanding the fact that she comes from one of the most liberal cities in the country,” Newton explains.

He describes her federal assault ban as one of her crowning career achievements that society tangibly benefited from.

“In retrospect, the fact that that ban sunsetted is certainly unfortunate for society. It was a compromise necessary to get it through. But I think it's probably true that she and others underestimated how difficult it would be to renew the ban after it had sunsetted,” Newton explains. “She's trying to get it re-upped again. I would hope that in her remaining time in the Senate, maybe she can do that.”

Feinstein’s steadfast nature especially emerged when she spoke out against CIA torture.

“She is a relentless legislator. There's no doubt about it. And in this case, there was some division within the Obama administration about whether to prosecute those who are involved in torture, or whether to simply move ahead and leave this as a sort of legacy of the Bush years.”

He adds, “There were a lot of cross-cutting loyalties there but she was steadfast, tough, tenacious, all of which are hallmarks of her career. It didn't make her a lot of friends on this one, and it certainly put her at odds, as I say, with some allies and friends. But she dug in and when she digs in, she's tough.”

However, as her behavior during the Supreme Court nominations showed, Newton says Feinstein has always wanted a U.S. Senate that is friendly and more bipartisan in nature.

“I think that it reflects a part of her personality that's likable and commendable. She wants to think the best of people, including those with whom she disagrees. But there's sometimes, you have the sense of her bringing a knife to a gunfight. She feels outgunned, so to speak, and not prepared for the level of deviousness and obstruction that opponents are willing to sink to. And I just don't think that she's fully gotten her head around how bad that's become.”

Looking at the legacy Feinstein leaves behind, Newton says he hopes she’s remembered as the powerful political presence she’s exemplified over the years.

“[Her career has] been such an impressive, such a groundbreaking, and such an important part of California history. I really think that she and Jerry Brown are the last lions of that generation of California politics. Both of them have done such important work. And I would certainly hate to have people remember her for a kind of whimper at the end, as opposed to the roar that she came in with and had for so many years.”