Despite All Her Years Away, Feinstein Never Really Left San Francisco

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
The American flag at the U.S. Capitol flies at half staff in honor of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died overnight at her Washington home at the age of 90, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 29, 2023.

SAN FRANCISCO – In June of 1933, Dianne Feinstein was born in this foggy city by the bay. That same year, a few miles away, a crew of workers began construction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

And just like that, just months apart, two towering symbols of San Francisco came into being.

The Golden Gate opened four years later. It took Feinstein, whose surname at birth was Goldman, a few more decades to make herself known, but she would come to define her hometown – as much as it defined her – over a long and historic career that took her to the highest reaches of American political power.

Through it all, she never left San Francisco. Not really, anyway. Traces of her nearly 20-year reign as supervisor and mayor can be found all over, from the cable cars she rode as a child and saved as an elected leader to the school that now bears her name, from the bronze bust that still watches over City Hall to her family home beside a San Francisco landmark.

Her death on Friday, more than 2,400 miles away, has left a profound absence – not only in Washington, where her long-held Senate seat is now vacant, but also in her city, which for decades has been able to count on one of its own representing it in Congress’s upper chamber.

“She was a San Franciscan,” said Jim Lazarus, who served as Feinstein’s deputy mayor in the 1980s and remained a close adviser. “And in the back of her mind, she was always going to be mayor of San Francisco.”

Early ambitions and impact

Feinstein grew up in Presidio Terrace, a tiny, gated cul-de-sac of mansions on the northern tip of the city’s peninsula. From the outside, it was a childhood of extreme privilege. But the conspicuous wealth belied a harrowing home life.

Her father was a prominent surgeon who worked long hours, and her mother, who suffered from mental illness, subjected her three daughters to relentless abuse. Feinstein, the oldest, took refuge in San Francisco, navigating its cable cars by memory before she was old enough to read the signs.

“When she was young, she just had the run of the city,” said Jerry Roberts, a journalist who covered Feinstein for decades and wrote the only major biography of her. “She had that streetwise sense instilled in her at an early age.”

For high school, she attended one of the city’s most elite institutions, Convent of the Sacred Heart, housed in a regal building with elaborate molding, marble floors and sublime views of the bay, from Alcatraz to the Golden Gate Bridge. She was the only Jewish student at the all-girls Catholic school, and starred as the male lead in a string of school plays.

“Her whole style of presentation, of confidence, of strength that she developed politically, it was formed there,” Roberts said.

Outside Sacred Heart’s ornate walls, she got a different sort of education. Feinstein’s uncle, Morris Goldman, introduced her to the seamy world of San Francisco politics in the ’40s and ’50s, when bosses, bettors and bookies ran everything. Goldman, a clothes maker and gambler, took his niece to city meetings, schooling her about the “Board of Stupidvisors.”

What she saw and learned would serve her well. William Saroyan once wrote that every San Francisco block is a short story and each of its hills a novel. The city’s politics are similar: extremely localized and incredibly diverse. In the late 1960s, when Feinstein mounted her first candidacy here, this meant feverish retail campaigning.

She made a special point to reach out to San Francisco’s large gay community, a savvy political move but also one that foreshadowed her long commitment to LGBTQ issues. She won her 1969 campaign for the board of supervisors in a landslide – and publicly credited gay voters.

Yet it was because of one of the city’s greatest tragedies – the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, a prominent gay leader – that she would truly make her mark. At the time, Feinstein was president of the board of supervisors. With Moscone’s death, she became mayor.

She dealt with a succession of crises during her 10 years in the job. In the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic devastated the city, she organized a national task force to combat the disease and marshaled an all-hands-on-deck public health approach that would come to be known as “the San Francisco model” of care.

Roberts, Feinstein’s biographer, calls her leadership during that terrible time her “greatest legacy” in San Francisco. Carole Migden, a longtime lesbian activist and ally of Milk who later served as both city supervisor and state lawmaker, credits her for being “deeply involved” in tackling AIDS despite her personal conservatism.

And she tried hard to understand the gay community she was trying to serve. One meeting between the mayor and gay activists ended with Feinstein clearly perplexed.

“She looked me in the eye and said, ‘What the heck is a glory hole?'” Migden recalled Friday, chuckling and then adding: “She had tremendous curiosity. She was willing to learn and change, and so was the public.”

Still, Feinstein frequently angered LGBTQ advocates during her tenure. She shut dozens of gay bathhouses and vetoed a bill that would have given health benefits to the domestic partners of gay city employees. A sign commonly seen in San Francisco’s Castro district during that time read, “Dump Dianne.”

‘We miss her’

Even after her 1992 election to Congress, she always kept a close watch on her city.

Lazarus, who was then her state director, remembers driving with her one winter when they ran into heavy traffic near Union Square. Rankled at the chaos, Feinstein ordered him to get Mayor Willie Brown on the line.

“I’m down here at Post and Powell, and it’s nearly gridlocked,” Feinstein told Brown. “You’ve got to get traffic control down here.”

“The last thing any mayor wanted to hear was a call from Dianne,” Lazarus said with a laugh.

Feinstein’s continued fixation on local politics extended to its next generation of leaders. During now-state Sen. Scott Wiener’s run for the supervisors board in 2010, Feinstein asked to meet with him after giving him her influential endorsement. Wiener thought Feinstein, then one of Washington’s most powerful figures, would only spare a few minutes.

Instead, they talked for an hour, Feinstein offering detailed suggestions on his campaign literature. At one point, an aide popped in to tell her that Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) was on the phone. “I’ll call him back,” she replied.

“That’s the first time I understood, she had this larger-than-life persona, but she was actually unbelievably authentic and real,” Wiener said Friday. “I saw there was no BS’ing with Dianne Feinstein.”

In recent years, Feinstein caught more flak around San Francisco, drawing criticism from some liberals when she decided to run for reelection in 2018 and more recently when she refused calls to resign because of declining health. In 2021, Dianne Feinstein Elementary School was included in a short-lived campaign to rename city institutions as a step toward racial reckoning. The school board eventually abandoned the effort.

Feinstein never published a memoir and was famously private about her personal life, especially the years marked by trauma. Instead, her city has been left to remember her on its own terms.

As word of her death spread on Friday, bouquets appeared around her bronze bust inside City Hall. Scores of residents lined up to sign a book of remembrance. Others laid flowers outside her Pacific Heights home, which sits at the foot of the famed Lyon Street Steps and looks over the bay toward the Marin Hills.

Kathleen Dunbar, who has lived in San Francisco since Feinstein’s early years as mayor, was among those who visited her house on Friday. She recalled twice running into her around town, at an ATM and a bookstore.

“She was an early, strong female voice, and she gave a lot to the city,” Dunbar said. “She was very down to earth, and we miss her.”

Early Saturday evening, a military jet returned the senator’s body to San Francisco, touching down at the city airport’s executive terminal as sunlight broke through heavy clouds. A color guard and a phalanx of police officers greeted the plane. Former House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who accompanied Feinstein’s daughter on the flight, wiped away tears as her friend’s flag-covered coffin was loaded into a hearse.

Funeral plans have not been announced, but it’s possible her body will lie in state at San Francisco City Hall. It would be a fitting tribute to the woman who once, during a quiet moment near the end of her time in local politics, confided a modest ambition to a colleague.

“No matter what I ever do in the future, I hope people will always regard me as an excellent mayor,” Feinstein told Louise Renne, whom she’d appointed to the supervisor seat left open when she became city leader. “And I just thought to myself today, ‘Dianne, nobody could ever think you were other than an excellent mayor.'”

REUTERS/Hyungwon Kang/File Photo
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) speaks about START Treaty on Capitol Hill in Washington, December 15, 2010.