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6 memorable moments from Dianne Feinstein's career

Tributes are pouring in after the death of Dianne Feinstein, who had a career of historic firsts, including being California’s first female senator.

The Democrat’s career saw her lead the city of San Fransisco — another first — in a period of political turmoil following the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

She was pivotal in efforts to hold the CIA accountable for its torture program after 9/11. And she led Democrats on the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees. 

The long-serving senator faced increasing calls to resign from her seat during the twilight years of her career amid public health issues, including a long battle with shingles and concerns over her mental acuity.

Here are six memorable moments from her distinguished career:

Harvey Milk assassination

Dianne Feinstein, then president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, holds a press conference following the killing of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey milk. Feinstein was in her office a few feet away from the shootings. “I heard shots. I heard three,” she said. At right is Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver.

Feinstein lived through the 1978 assassinations of Moscone and Milk, which led her to becoming the first woman mayor of San Francisco. 

She found Milk’s body after he was shot. He was the first openly gay man elected to public office in California.

“I was the one that found Supervisor Milk’s body, and I was the one to put a finger in a bullet hole, trying to get a pulse,” she said in 2013.

She was also pivotal in naming the accused killer Dan White, a conservative former supervisor who had resigned from the board and been refused his job back, later killing Moscone and Milk in retaliation.

A long list of firsts

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American politician Dianne Feinstein, the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, at San Francisco City Hall Sept. 28, 1971. (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

Feinstein, a Stanford University graduate, was elected to the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors in 1969 and was later elected to the Senate in 1992.

She was the first woman to serve as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first female mayor of San Francisco, the first female senator from California, the first female chair of Senate Rules and Intelligence committees, the first woman to serve on Senate Judiciary Committee and the first woman to serve as top Democrat on Judiciary.

In tributes paid on the Senate floor Friday from her colleagues, many remembered the senator as a welcoming, open and thoughtful colleague who paved the way for other women in the chamber. 

Many also shared their own stories of Feinstein gifting them a seersucker suit for the annual tradition at the Capitol. In 2006, at least a half-dozen women senators were among the seersucker brigade, thanks to Feinstein.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), meanwhile, called out the “scathing attacks” Feinstein faced toward the end of her career and called them “grossly unfair attacks on a woman who was in failing health.” She added that they failed to appreciate her contributions to her state, the Senate and the country.

Assault weapons ban

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), left, accompanied by then-Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), holds an AR-15 assault-style rifle with a collapsible stock during a Capitol Hill news conference, after the House voted to repeal the 2-year-old assault-style firearms ban. (AP Photo/John Duricka, File)

One of Feinstein’s biggest legislative accomplishments was an amendment to ban the sale and manufacture of assault-style weapons, which then-President Clinton signed into law in 1994.

Feinstein took a lead role in the effort to pass a bill, often called the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which passed the Senate by 91 votes. It later passed the House, but as a political concession, the bill would expire in 2004 if it wasn’t renewed, which eventually came to pass. 

The final bill outlawed 14 semiautomatic assault weapons, Kalashnikov- and AR-15-style rifles, as well as high-capacity magazines.

“Once you have been through one of these episodes, once you see what the crime scene is like, it isn’t like the movies — it changes your view of weapons,” she told CNN in 2013.

CIA torture report

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Dianne Feinstein pictured with then-President George Bush. (TIM SLOAN/AFP via Getty Images)

In 2014, Feinstein, then-chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a bombshell 500-page public report on the CIA’s secret interrogation program.

What became known as the “torture report” found many of the CIA’s practices were overly brutal and possibly illegal.

Feinstein had been in a long-standing fight with the CIA, which she accused of repeatedly stonewalling the White House, Justice Department and overseers of Congress throughout the course of the programs.

In a floor speech in 2014, she called the Bush-era programs “morally, legally and administratively misguided” and said “this nation should never again engage in these tactics.”

The report also saw a huge rift between the CIA and lawmakers after agency officials broke into Senate staffers’ computers through a portal used to pass documents back and forth.

Climate change legacy

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) walks to a classified briefing. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Feinstein leaves behind a complicated but enduring legacy when it comes to climate change — having championed landmark legislation to safeguard California’s environment but also clashing on the issue in recent years with progressive young activists.

Among her most recent legislative efforts to champion the region’s natural resources was the West Coast Ocean Protection Act — a bill that she first sponsored in 2021 and then reintroduced this year.

The NGO Environment America described her Friday as “a steadfast protector of the California coast,” whose bill sought to protect the Pacific Northwest from offshore oil and gas drilling.

Decades earlier, in 1994, her advocacy also fueled the passage of the California Desert Protection Act, which helped preserve areas like Joshua Tree National Park, Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve.

At the same time, young climate change activists will also remember a controversial moment in Feinstein’s career when a group of middle and high school students presented her with a letter asking her to support Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) “Green New Deal.” A video posted on social media in which she rebuked the children for adopting a “my way or the highway” attitude ended up going viral and even prompted a “Saturday Night Live” spoof.

Nonetheless, California environmental activists expressed their gratitude Friday for her service. 

Declining health and calls to resign

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) gets a standing ovation as she arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee business meeting May 11, 2023, to discuss nominations.

Feinstein struggled with her health for several years, relying on a wheelchair to get around the Capitol after missing three months of work for a bout of shingles.

Her absence from the Senate for almost three months delayed several of President Biden’s judicial nominees as she sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democrats hold a narrow 11-10 majority.  

She also faced growing concerns about her mental acuity after appearing confused and disoriented in front of reporters and in committee hearings.

Earlier this year, only moments after announcing her plans to not run for reelection, she told reporters she had not yet decided whether to seek another term. And shortly after returning to the Capitol following her case of shingles, she told reporters, “I haven’t been gone. I’ve been working.”

Several members of Congress called for her to resign, including House Democrats Ro Khanna (Calif.), Dean Phillips (Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.).

“I think if you’re a member, and you become a shadow of your former self, you should resign,” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.) said in May.

Notably, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Feinstein should not resign from her seat in the Senate, arguing that Republicans would likely not allow a Democratic replacement to join the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Democratic primary to replace Feinstein in deep-blue California will be among the most closely watched of the 2024 cycle.

Sharon Udasin contributed.

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