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New York Times
30 Sep 2023
Heather Knight

NextImg:San Francisco Mourns Its Homegrown Senator and the End of the Feinstein Era

Even as a senator, Dianne Feinstein didn’t hesitate to share her gripes about San Francisco’s uneven sidewalks and dirty streets with the mayors who succeeded her.

She was traveling in a car several years ago past the Sutter-Stockton Garage, a downtown parking structure, and was frustrated to see a ratty mattress propped up against a fire hydrant.

“Ed!” she hollered over the phone to Ed Lee, who was mayor at the time. “There’s a mattress!”

Days later, she returned to the neighborhood, and the mattress was gone, Sean Elsbernd, a former state director for Ms. Feinstein, recalled on Friday with a chuckle. “She was very pleased with herself.”

To Ms. Feinstein, San Francisco was still a city that took pride in attention to detail and kept expectations high — or should try to anyway.

She was born in San Francisco in 1933, the very same year construction began on the Golden Gate Bridge. She was central to some of the city’s greatest triumphs and its transformation into a financial and cultural capital of the West Coast.

And she steered the city through some of its worst tragedies: the assassinations of her City Hall colleagues, the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre of hundreds of San Francisco-based cult followers in Guyana and the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the city’s gay community.

The journey of San Francisco is inextricable from the 90-year life of Ms. Feinstein, who attended Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in the same Pacific Heights neighborhood where she kept her stately city residence until her death Thursday night.

Many City Hall veterans said Friday that Ms. Feinstein’s brand of detail-oriented and demanding leadership resulted in a better San Francisco, a city where political infighting and governmental inefficiencies are now trademarks. Take, for example, the five-year quest to design a bespoke city trash can — a process that still has not resulted in many new bins being installed on the city’s infamously grimy sidewalks.

Dianne Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco, and the singer Tony Bennett hanging on to the outside of a cable car in the city before taking a test ride in 1984.Credit...Jeff Reinking/Associated Press

Layers of well-intentioned laws and regulations have increasingly slowed city government, but some former colleagues fondly recalled that Ms. Feinstein’s mettle simply made government work.

As mayor, Ms. Feinstein led meetings on Monday mornings during which every city department head had to answer her specific questions, such as how many more people were living on the streets compared with the week before, recalled Rudy Nothenberg, who served as her deputy mayor.

She famously carried a firefighter’s coat and helmet in her car trunk so she could show up for every major blaze in the city.

“The main takeaway for me was that the city needs to have competent, involved and energetic bureaucratic management at the top level,” said Mr. Nothenberg, who retired in the 1990s as the city’s chief administrator.

On Friday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed ordered City Hall flags to fly at half-staff.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

San Francisco would look very different if Ms. Feinstein had not been its mayor: No more cable cars. No colorful street cars rumbling down Market Street. Perhaps no Pier 39, the kitschy spot on the northern waterfront.

Launched in 1873, the entire cable car system was on the verge of collapse when she took office. She secured $60 million in federal funds and business donations and then led the rebuilding of the entire system in less than two years.

“Other mayors had kicked the can down the road, but Dianne took that challenge and triumphed,” said Rick Laubscher, president of the nonprofit Market Street Railway, who worked closely with Ms. Feinstein as a businessman to save the cable cars. “She did an incredible job in a ridiculously short time.”

While the cable cars were shuttered for repairs, Ms. Feinstein launched the colorful streetcars that rumble down Market Street in their place. That move eventually led to the creation of the city’s popular F-car line from the Castro district to Pier 39.

(The myth that the F line was named for Feinstein, however, is not true.)

Perhaps Ms. Feinstein’s biggest contribution to San Francisco was guiding the shellshocked city out of the 1970s, a decade marked with horrors that included several serial killers; the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the newspaper heiress; the Jonestown massacre; and the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

Ms. Feinstein during a march in memory of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1979.Credit...Paul Sakuma/Associated Press

Duffy Jennings recalled racing down to City Hall on Nov. 27, 1978 as a reporter for The San Francisco Chronicle when word came that people had been shot. Ms. Feinstein, the president of the Board of Supervisors, appeared, flanked by an aide on one side and the police chief on the other. Looking wide-eyed and stunned, she paused for several moments in front of about 30 journalists.

“When she said the mayor and Harvey had been killed, there was shouting of ‘Oh my God!’ and gasping. She couldn’t get out another word,” Mr. Jennings said.

Ms. Feinstein delivered more shocking news. The suspect was Dan White, who served with her and Mr. Milk on the Board of Supervisors. It emerged later that Ms. Feinstein had seen Mr. Milk’s body, tried to find his pulse and stuck her finger in a bullet hole.

Soon after, she was named mayor and led the city as it tried to find its bearings.

“She was resilient in the face of this terrible tragedy,” Mr. Jennings said. “The city was in shock and reeling and really needed someone to pull it together, which she did so well over the next few years as mayor.”

A statue depicting Ms. Feinstein, funded by her late husband, Richard Blum, that sits outside the mayor’s office.Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Ms. Feinstein, a staunch moderate, was not always a perfect fit for San Francisco, a city that sometimes pushed the boundaries further to the left than she was comfortable with. Over the years, her middle-of-the-road positions fell out of step with the city’s dominant liberal politics.

In a city that has been essential to the L.G.B.T.Q. movement, Ms. Feinstein vetoed domestic partner legislation in 1982 and pushed for the closure of gay bathhouses as the AIDS epidemic grew, both of which were unpopular among many gay residents. She later supported gay marriage.

Her moderate approach endured throughout her political career, a vestige from the era when compromise between Democrats and Republicans was more commonplace. She forged a bipartisan agreement in 1994 to accomplish one of her signature achievements in Congress, a 10-year ban on assault weapons.

Mr. Elsbernd, the former aide, said Ms. Feinstein felt out of sync with today’s politics of instant gratification and fitting messages into quippy social media posts.

“She kept her head down,” Mr. Elsbernd said. “And she just kept going.”

She became the target of ideological San Francisco politics in 2021 when the city’s Board of Education considered changing the name of Dianne Feinstein Elementary School because, when she was mayor, her parks director responded to a protester taking down a Confederate flag from a display by putting another in its place. Ms. Feinstein had it removed permanently after a couple of days in response to a request from Doris Ward, a Black supervisor.

The school board ultimately decided not to change the school’s name or 43 others under consideration after intense blowback.

On Friday morning, a resident in Ms. Feinstein’s Pacific Heights neighborhood, Elizabeth Sturcken, recalled meeting the senator in 2016. Ms. Feinstein, sporting a track suit and walking her little dog, warned Ms. Sturcken that she should not allow her young son to scale a portico that sits on the city’s famous Lyon Street steps.

The two women struck up a conversation about the state of politics and the presidential primary in which Donald Trump was doing surprisingly well. Ms. Sturcken said the senator lamented the lack of civics education and the crumbling bipartisanship in the nation’s capital.

“I could sense a real, deep loss on her part for the civility of the Senate and ultimately doing what’s right for the people,” Ms. Sturcken said. “She was part of that era when the focus was on legislating, policy and getting things done. I think maybe that has died with her.”

On Friday, Mayor London Breed ordered City Hall flags to fly at half-staff and visitors left bouquets at a statue of Ms. Feinstein that sat outside the mayor’s office.

Ms. Breed, only the second woman to serve as San Francisco mayor, held a news conference in her office on Friday to mourn Ms. Feinstein’s death. She was flanked by two large portraits: one of herself, and one of Ms. Feinstein. Portraits of the city’s former male leaders hang in less-prominent positions.

Ms. Breed said she has admired Ms. Feinstein ever since middle school, when she played the French horn in performances with her school band at City Hall while Ms. Feinstein was mayor.

The senator never failed to call years later when Ms. Breed became mayor — about the uneven sidewalks, potholes and other pesky problems.

“Dianne never stopped being mayor,” Ms. Breed said.