In the current era of hyperpartisan state and national politics, elected leaders in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., should pause to reflect on Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s willingness to pragmatically reach across the aisle.
The oldest member of the U.S. Senate, California’s first woman elected to the upper house of Congress, and the longest-tenured female senator in American history, Feinstein died Thursday night at her home in the nation’s capital. She was 90.
For too many with only short-term memories, she will be remembered for her refusal to resign her Senate seat as her health failed and her mental acuity declined. But that narrow focus on the final few years of her life misses the importance of her political career that spanned more than half a century.
Feinstein was not a political ideologue. She was a trailblazer and great leader respectful of the state’s diverse electorate and loathe to get too far ahead of it. It’s a legacy that Gov. Gavin Newsom should respect as he appoints her successor.
Feinstein’s political career began with her election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969. She was a critically needed calming influence on her home city as she succeeded Mayor George Moscone in 1978 after he and Supervisor Harvey Milk were killed in City Hall.
Feinstein’s election to the U.S. Senate in the year of the woman, 1992, and her legislative accomplishments during her three decades in Congress demonstrated the wisdom of her politically measured approach.
On many issues, Feinstein was a liberal: She was the author of a national assault weapons ban that lasted a decade, a supporter of abortion rights, author of the California Desert Protection Act, an advocate for fuel-efficient vehicle standards and a fierce critic of the CIA’s use of torture.
But Feinstein was also a pragmatist who eschewed party lines to represent the core centrism of the voters of her state. She favored stiffer security at the border and punishment for those who illegally employed migrants. And she angered environmentalists, including fellow California Sen. Barbara Boxer, with her support for Central Valley agricultural water interests.
On some issues, such as her original opposition to same-sex marriage and support of the death penalty, she would eventually reverse course. The decision she said she regretted the most was her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq war.
To be sure, in the era of divided government, she was a reliable Democratic vote in the Senate — as she should have been. But she did so without flaunting her party affiliation.
During her 2018 reelection campaign, Feinstein came under sharp criticism from Democrats for urging voters to have “patience” with then-President Donald Trump. It was a tactical position, rather than any indication of support for the president’s positions. She recognized that little would be accomplished legislatively by merely railing against him.
It’s the sort of tempered political approach Newsom should honor as he picks someone to serve the remaining 1¼ years of her term. The governor, who has indicated he plans to select a Black woman for the job, has wisely said that he wants to make an “interim appointment.”
In other words, he doesn’t want to tip the scales in favor of any of the 2024-election candidates vying to fill the seat for the following six years. That has angered Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, a Black woman who has struggled to gain statewide support as she unabashedly runs as the hard-left candidate in race.
What Lee misses and Newsom seems to appreciate is that no candidate has an entitlement to the six-year term and the winner should emerge through the statewide electoral process. It’s the sort of respect for the voters that Feinstein would have appreciated.
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Photos: Dianne Feinstein, the oldest sitting U.S. Senator, dies at 90