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Senate race: Delving into DiFi

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a Senate confirmation hearing for John Roberts as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo: Rob Crandall, via Shutterstock)

Dianne Feinstein’s long political life has been marked by gunfire, victories, toughness and tragedy. The smart money says it’s not over yet.

Feinstein, now 84 and the oldest member of the U. S. Senate, has announced she will run for re-election in 2018, seeking her fifth full term. Her decision put an end to months of buzz about her political plans.

Senate Leader Kevin de León announced he will challenge her in the 2018 top-two primary, and other Democratic challengers may arise, too. (A story on the Sextant Strategies-Capitol Weekly poll examining the race can be viewed here. The poll’s toplines can be seen here.)

Feinstein’s announcement that she will run for a fifth full term is the latest chapter in a roller-coaster public and private life.

Feinstein is no stranger to elections – local, state or federal.

In the early 90’s, she ran three statewide races in four years, a modern record.

She first was elected to the Senate in 1992 in a special election for the seat of state Sen. John Seymour, an Orange County Republican businessman who had been appointed to the Senate to fill the seat vacated by Pete Wilson. Wilson had left the U.S. Senate to run successfully for California governor in 1990.

In an unusual example of political musical chairs, Wilson appointed his own Senate successor, saying publicly that his principal concern was making sure whoever he appointed to serve out his unexpired Senate term was electable.

But Feinstein, who had lost the 1990 governor’s race to Wilson, put a stop to that.

She crushed Seymour by 1.8 million votes in the 1992 special election and has been in the U.S. Senate ever since. She ran again for the Senate in 1994 for a six-year term, and again in 2000, 2006 and 2012.

Feinstein’s announcement that she will run for a fifth full term is the latest chapter in a roller-coaster public and private life.

She was born Dianne Emiel Goldman into a family of beauty and wealth on June 22, 1933, but there was a tragic backdrop.

Her father, Dr. Leon Goldman, was a respected and beloved San Francisco surgeon at the University of California’s San Francisco medical campus. Her mother was a beautiful, demented and sometimes-violent alcoholic who once tried to drown Dianne’s younger sister Lynn in the bathtub.  Dianne and her sisters lived in an atmosphere of anxiety and fear.

She married Bertram Feinstein, who died of colon cancer in 1978, leaving Dianne heartbroken. “As a marriage, it was a 10,” she said.

“Dianne grew up with many of the personality hallmarks of the oldest child of an alcoholic: an unstinting drive for achievement, control, and perfection, a heightened sense of responsibility, a desire to hide the secret and at the same time work to fix it,” Jerry Roberts reported in his seminal 1994 biography of Feinstein, “Never Let Them See You Cry.”

The young, idealistic and very pretty Dianne Goldman was queen of the Junior Grand National Exposition in 1951. She showed an early interest in public life and elected office, becoming student body vice president at Stanford University.

She graduated from Stanford in 1955 with a bachelor’s degree and in 1956 married attorney Jack Berman, the first of her three husbands.  They divorced three years later and in 1962, she married Bertram Feinstein, who died of colon cancer in 1978, leaving Dianne heartbroken. “As a marriage, it was a 10,” Feinstein said. She married investment banker Richard Blum in 1980.

Her long, long career in elected office began in 1970, when Dianne won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. San Francisco was — and is — a city-county, so the board in reality serves as the city council. The ambitious and impatient young politician ran for mayor in 1971, finishing third; she ran again in 1975, again finishing third behind George Moscone and John Barbagelata.

News footage of a pale and shaken Feinstein announcing the murders of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk went across the nation and the world.

Moscone was assassinated in 1978.  As president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein became acting mayor.

News footage of a pale and shaken Feinstein announcing the murders of Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk went across the nation and the world. A nationally unknown provincial politician had become known, instantly.

It was a deeply traumatic period for San Francisco: The mass suicide in Guyana of hundreds of followers of the People’s Temple – a religious cult once based in San Francisco – and the murder of a popular area congressman, Leo Ryan, engulfed the city in tragedy.

As mayor, Feinstein presided over repair and restoration of San Francisco’s beloved cable cars, and oversaw planning for more high-rise downtown buildings.

In April, she crushed the recall effort, winning 84 percent of the vote and becoming one of the most recognized female politicians in the country.

When Dan White, the assassin of Moscone and Milk, was given a lighter-then-expected sentence, Feinstein had a riot on her hands.  She wrestled with the city budget; she was a centrist Democrat in a decidedly leftist city, angering many liberals with her support of the Jimmy Carter-Walter Mondale presidential ticket rather than the insurgent bid of Ted Kennedy. She won election on her own by a 54 to 46 percent margin after a bitter campaign that saw Jerry Brown endorse Quentin Kopp, her opponent.

In 1983, she faced a recall election. With her support, the supervisors had narrowly passed a city ordinance banning handgun possession within the city limits. That enraged a group of Haight-Ashbury residents calling themselves the White Panthers. They circulated petitions for a recall vote.  The anti-Feinsteinistas also gained support by her veto of legislation that would have allowed domestic partners to gain benefits accorded to heterosexual couples.

In April, she crushed the recall effort, winning 84 percent of the vote and becoming one of the most recognized female politicians in the country.

In the Senate, Feinstein has been a centrist.  Perhaps her most famous legislative cause was banning assault rifles, which passed in 1994 and expired ten years later.  A 2013 re-try failed. She has been a steady opponent of President Donald Trump, calling his most recent attempt to dump parts of the Affordable Health Care Act “appalling” and his opposition to the Iran nuclear treaty “reckless and irresponsible.”

In 1992, she campaigned with Barbara Boxer for the Senate. Reporters dubbed them “Thelma and Louise.”

But she raised eyebrows when she told a San Francisco audience in August that the “question is whether he (Trump) can learn and change. If so, I believe he can be a good president.”

Dianne Feinstein is unfailingly gracious.  She helped move furniture in her outer office to improve sightlines for photographs of visiting paramedics after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Those waiting for their flights at Reagan National Airport a few years ago could see Feinstein and then-fellow-senator Barbara Boxer sharing a bag of chips and chatting as they waited for their flight to the West Coast.

Boxer, as a supporter of John Van de Kamp in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, campaigned against Feinstein in 1990.  In 1992, she campaigned with her for the Senate. Reporters dubbed tall Dianne and short Barbara “Thelma and Louise.”

Regardless of political leanings, there is much in Feinstein’s life that can serve as an object lesson in perseverance and back-from-the-depths. While it’s true that she was born into wealth, it is equally true that her life is a history of overcoming obstacles, of comebacks in the face of political and personal heartbreaks that would have derailed others.

Californians will be watching as the latest chapter unfolds over the coming 55 weeks.


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