(TriceEdneyWire.com) – The late Sen. Dianne Feinstein was my mayor. I’m a native San Franciscan who cut her political chops in my home city. I often spent time with our mayor and appreciate her grace and kindness. We didn’t see the world the same way and occasionally crossed swords around race matters. Still, I always respected her and how she managed policy and politics. And I also appreciated the hurdles she had to clear as the first woman mayor of San Francisco. Her life is a litany of firsts.
She rose to the mayoralty amid the crisis sparked by the assassination of her predecessor, George Moscone, and a colleague, Harvey Milk. She led a city that mourned our only openly gay member of the board of supervisors and a beloved mayor. She comported herself with a restrained brilliance, saying the right thing every time and flashing her somber smile as she spoke. I will never forget a meeting in her office where my cold had me hacking through it. I don’t remember the issue we disagreed on, but I remember having one of her aides bring me a cup of tea with honey to help my throat.
As mayor, she revived our tourist-attracting cable cars and (with Nancy Pelosi) brought the 1984 Democratic convention to San Francisco. That was quite a convention where Rev. Jesse Jackson threw down with a policy speech that included lines like, “I’d rather have Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse,” and the critical self-revealing, “God ain’t finished with me yet.” Jackson wasn’t nominated, but he launched hundreds of political careers. Feinstein and Pelosi were responsible for providing a backdrop to his message.
Dianne Feinstein was part of the 1992 “Year of the Woman,” the year after Anita Hill endured grueling treatment by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Many knew that there was not a single woman on that committee, and, indeed, Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, said she was inspired to run for the Senate as a “mom in tennis shoes” after that hearing. In November 1992, four new women were elected to the United States Senate, a record number that included Senator Feinstein, Carol Mosley Braun of Illinois, Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray. Because this critical mass of women was elected, the Senate had to create a women’s restroom, and it took some struggle for women to wear pants on the Senate floor.
Feinstein’s contributions to this Senate were innumerable, with one of the most important being her 1994 legislation to ban assault weapons. That legislation expired in 2014, and the results of its expiration scream from daily headlines. Dianne Feinstein saved lives. With her Senate career forged out of tragedy, she was profoundly aware of the impact that assault (and other) weapons could have on people’s lives, especially the lives of children.
Feinstein’s Senate career partly happened because many women chafed at how the Senate Judiciary Committee treated Anita Hill. Thus, it was poetic justice that Feinstein became the ranking Democrat in the Senate Judiciary Committee. She was the first woman to have that role. She worked on several things, including immigration, civil rights, national security, and the courts. Her Senate career is a pastiche of first, with roles in intelligence and appropriations, among others. She was chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development. A staff memo on her transition reminds us that she “secured billions of dollars for California communities, including critical transportation, water supply, and federal building projects.” She ensured that federal wildland firefighters earned higher salaries and worked to improve California’s water infrastructure.
Dozens of published bios and obituaries will highlight Feinstein’s many legislative accomplishments. Many will describe her as an “icon” or “role model” and an inspirational woman who shattered the glass ceiling with grit and grace. She was persistent, resilient, visionary, collaborative, brilliant, and awe-inspiring. In her later years, she was physically diminished, but that did not lessen her impact. I will miss Feinstein, the gentle warrior whose passionate love for her home state of California was a blessing to us all.
Many of us who stand with Barbara Lee chafe at Gov. Gavin Newsome’s failure to appoint Congresswoman Lee. Still, we all have high hopes and wish much success for Laphonza Butler and his selection. Newsome’s appointment checks his box to appoint a Black woman to the next open seat in the Senate. His refusal to hear the many who asked him to appoint Lee will have ramifications in the long run. What might Feinstein have done had she been governor? Food for thought.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is an economist, author and educator. www.juliannemalveaux.com.