top of page

Dianne Feinstein: 4 decades of influence

Updated: Jan 6, 2022

SUNDAY PROFILE / Dianne Feinstein

"A single mother at age 26 after a brief, stormy marriage, Feinstein took up sailing in the bay on an 18-foot boat. One day, unable to raise the sail in rough water, she was almost swept by the tide out the Golden Gate."

Oct. 20, 2012

Washington -- Dianne Feinstein, the press' "raven-haired beauty" of the early 1960s who sailed alone in San Francisco Bay's treacherous waters, has become, at age 79, an institution in California politics.

The state's most popular politician is riding a 26-point lead to a fourth term over her little-known Republican opponent, Elizabeth Emken, whom she refuses to debate. If re-elected as California's senior senator, she would be 85 at the end of a new term, the Senate's third-oldest member, 17th in seniority and wielding enormous power as chair of the Intelligence Committee and as a senior member of the Appropriations and Judiciary committees.

In the twilight of her career, she has left a big mark.

"It's what I'm meant to do," Feinstein said in a recent interview from her home in San Francisco.

Learning to navigate

In four decades of a public life that began with reporters waxing on about her looks, Feinstein seldom speaks of her private life. Yet it bespeaks a singular determination that fueled her rise from abused child to Washington powerbroker.

A single mother at age 26 after a brief, stormy marriage, Feinstein took up sailing in the bay on an 18-foot boat. One day, unable to raise the sail in rough water, she was almost swept by the tide out the Golden Gate.

"The bay's tricky, but the nice thing about it is you learn," Feinstein said. "You learn about tides. You learn about the forces of nature. You learn to respect fog. ... You also learn that if it gets rough and the engine gets swamped, you've got a problem."

By many accounts, she remains much the same person and politician she was as San Francisco's mayor during one of the most turbulent eras in the city's history.

Dianne Feinstein, Convent of the Sacred Heart HS, 1951: U.S. senator. (Chris Usher / AP)

No issue too small

Once known as the "Goody Two-shoes" of City Hall, Feinstein is a "good-government," center-left pragmatist whose ideology is whatever she thinks is right, weighted by a heavy dose of statistics and gravitas.

"It really was my tenure as mayor of San Francisco that taught me how to listen," Feinstein said.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, consider that 2010 GOP Senate candidate Carly Fiorina promised to be just like her. Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger tried for bipartisan support but failed, while Feinstein has sailed to a 53 percent voter approval rating, finding favor among almost one-fourth of California Republicans, according to a recent Field Poll.

She is imperious and warm, charming and intimidating, perfectionist and charismatic, earnest and calculating.

In the nation's biggest state, no issue seems too small for her attention. She is a regular on national television discussing Iranian nuclear ambitions, yet tends assiduously to parochial California interests. A workaholic who takes home 7-inch binders at night, she delivers them to staff the next morning filled with sticky notes.

"Where Bill Clinton liked to stay up at night and make phone calls to people far into the night all around the country and just B.S. about stuff, I think she'd rather read some policy paper about fracking," said Jerry Roberts, a former Chronicle editor and author of the 1994 biography "Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry."

Respect of Republicans

She revels in split-the-baby deal making: "I think my greatest strength is finding a solution when there are opposing sides."

It was Feinstein, an ally of Hillary Rodham Clinton against Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, who brought the warring candidates to a secret rendezvous at her Washington home to bury the hatchet in private.

In a chamber riven by partisanship, Republicans like and respect her.

"She thinks through issues and makes what she thinks is a rational and correct decision," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee.

"Unfortunately there are some Republicans who, if it's a Democratic idea, immediately jump up and they're opposed to it, and that happens on the other side of the aisle too. But with Dianne, that does not happen."

'Intimidating force'

Feinstein healed a partisan rift on the panel and this year led a bipartisan rebuke of the administration on intelligence leaks suspected to have come from the White House, while fending off GOP calls for a special prosecutor.

"She has a towering presence both literally and figuratively, a sharp intellect and she is persistent to a fault," said Susan Kennedy, a former aide to Feinstein who later worked for Govs. Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, a Democrat.

"The combination of those three things makes her an incredibly intimidating force," Kennedy said. "She feels an immense responsibility of holding public office, much more so than anyone I've ever met."

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who has battled Feinstein on some issues but has been allied with her on others, said, "You wouldn't want to have anybody else in your foxhole but her."

She is not shy about wielding power, shutting down solar developers to protect land in the Mojave Desert, negotiating the deal to rescue ancient redwoods in the Headwaters Forest in Humboldt County, and leading the restoration of wetlands on San Francisco Bay.

Backing agribusiness

But Feinstein has infuriated Bay Area Democrats and environmentalists on water issues. She slipped riders into bills, threatening to override the Endangered Species Act and delighting farm interests who contribute to her campaigns.

In 2009, she forwarded a letter from corporate farmer and campaign contributor Stewart Resnick to two Cabinet secretaries, demanding and getting a study by the National Academy of Sciences. Resnick had asked Feinstein to side with agribusiness in a dispute over a federal plan intended to help fisheries in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta but opposed by farmers worried they would not get enough water during a drought year.

The $750,000 study did little to settle the matter. Environmentalists accuse Feinstein of empowering a water grab by farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, although many of those critics refuse to speak publicly for fear of angering her.

Some pundits speculate that her narrow loss to Republican Pete Wilson in the 1990 governor's race made her keen to woo the Republican-leaning Central Valley. Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist, now director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, said her support for agriculture has secured her Senate seat.

"That's a huge obstacle for any Republican challenger," Schnur said.

Tom Nassif, chief of Western Growers, a farm group that has endorsed Feinstein's re-election, defended Feinstein as being fair to the entire state, saying many lawmakers "are afraid to take on the environmentalists. ... Sen. Feinstein, on other hand, is not afraid of anybody."

As for Resnick's campaign contributions, Feinstein said, "I have thousands of people who contribute to my campaign. Stewart Resnick has. So what? So have others, and I'm proud to have ag support. I've worked hard for ag support."

Violence from mother

Feinstein was born Dianne Emiel Goldman in San Francisco in 1933 to an abusive mother and an adoring father. She lived in several neighborhoods while growing up in San Francisco and took horseback riding lessons for recreation. But at home, she was subjected to unpredictable violence. She witnessed her mother try to drown a younger sister in the bathtub, and as the eldest of three girls, she often took the brunt of her mother's wrath.

Her father, Leon Goldman, a prominent surgeon, schooled her in hard work, and Morris Goldman, her Uncle Morrie, took her to meetings at City Hall that piqued her interest in politics. Her father was Jewish, but her mother, raised Orthodox Catholic, insisted she be educated at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, an exclusive school that trained girls to "assume positions of influence and have the power to shape and change society."

Feinstein graduated from Stanford University with a degree in history at a time when women were educated to become wives. She dreamed of national politics.

In 1969, at 36 and married for the second time, to Bertram Feinstein, a neurosurgeon who was a colleague of her father, she managed an upset in her first campaign for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, becoming the board's first female president. Steeled in San Francisco's knife-fight politics of the 1970s, she waged two disastrous campaigns for mayor.

March 11, 1982: Mayor Dianne Feinstein's punishment for accepting generous Atari donation? She has to pretend to talk to Pac-Man. (Steve Ringman / The Chronicle)

Uniting city in crisis

Feinstein became the city's first female mayor with the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978, projecting an aura of calm and unity in a shell-shocked and divided city. Feinstein threw herself into the mayor's job, focusing on quality-of-life issues that she believed affected the city's larger prosperity, long before sociologists devised similar theories.

She arrived at fires pulling hoses, rode herd on bureaucrats, and on one of her inspections through town, saw an inebriated man collapse on a Tenderloin sidewalk, jumped out of her car and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale seriously considered her as his running mate in 1984, raising her national profile. Reaching for the governorship in 1990, Feinstein was edged out by Wilson but two years later won his vacated Senate seat, becoming California's first female senator.

After a close contest in her re-election bid against wealthy Republican Michael Huffington in 1994, she has skated to re-election, facing GOP candidates of steadily declining quality.

Marriage to Blum

Once divorced, once widowed (Bertram Feinstein died in 1978), Feinstein married wealthy investor Richard Blum in 1980. She lists assets of at least $42 million but still draws a $58,000 annual pension from the city of San Francisco. She has been dogged by charges from the left that she commingles public affairs with Blum's business interests. In 2007, a freelance journalist claimed she steered defense contracts to Blum from her chair on the Appropriations panel dealing with military construction. Feinstein was cleared by the Senate Ethics Committee.

Feinstein voted for the Iraq war, which she called her deepest regret, but has sounded caution on Iran. She pointed with pride to her 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004 and which she hopes to renew, and her work raising fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

When she is in the capital, Feinstein entertains members of Congress at her home in Spring Valley in northwest Washington, where Blum visits her regularly. On breaks, Feinstein returns to the Pacific Heights home in San Francisco that she and Blum have owned since 2006. Her daughter, Katherine Feinstein Mariano, is presiding judge of San Francisco Superior Court; she has three stepdaughters.

She is a serious book reader, particularly of mystery novels and intelligence thrillers, and recently read Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.

Feinstein has benefited from California's other U.S. senator, Barbara Boxer, an intensely partisan Democrat who can make Feinstein appear more moderate. In 2005, when Feinstein warmly introduced Condoleezza Rice at her confirmation hearing as secretary of state, Boxer said the single, childless Rice lacked a personal stake in the war.

Broken leg no obstacle

Above all else, Feinstein is tough. Four years ago, she broke her leg on a morning walk near Lake Tahoe with a friend, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek. She refused treatment and went on to host a dinner that night for 100 people and preside the next day at the Lake Tahoe Summit, an annual conference she spearheaded to save the lake where she rode horseback as a child.

"I wrapped her ankle. You know, I had Girl Scout training - I'm not an orthopedic surgeon," Tauscher said. "She is just so determined and so focused. I would say to her, 'Doesn't it hurt?' It's black and blue and just swollen. She'd say, 'Well how many people are at table five?'

"It wasn't until everything was done that she even considered going to the hospital," Tauscher said. Doctors found a break above the ankle.

Feinstein said she heard the bone pop but decided to carry on. "I just had to do it," she said. Asked how, she replied, "I just did."

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

Sept. 5, 1980: Walter Mondale campaigns with Dianne Feinstein in SF. Vici MacDonald/The Chronicle

U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi with Dianne Feinstein, center, and Rep. Jackie Speier on Nov. 7, 1990 in San Francisco. Feinstein had just conceded the California gubernatorial election to opponent Pete Wilson. Photo by Pete Leabo, Associated Press.

April 15, 1986 - Willie Mays says a few words to S.F. mayor Dianne Feinstein before the start of the Giants' home opener at Candlestick Park. Michael Maloney/The Chronicle

Barbara Boxer, left, and Dianne Feinstein join arms in victory after both won their bids for the U.S. Senate November 3, 1992. They will make history by becoming the first two women from the same state to serve in the Senate. Lou Demattaeis/Reuters


Senior United States Senator Dianne Feinstein speaking to The Chronicle in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, September 25, 2012. Liz Hafalia/The Chronicle


bottom of page