Early on Nov. 27, 1978, Board President Dianne Feinstein dropped by the City Hall press room and gave the reporters pecking away at their Underwoods what would’ve been a real scoop on any normal day: She was quitting politics.
Feinstein had, at that point, finished a disappointing third — and out of the runoff — in two prior mayoral runs. At the end of her supervisorial term in 1982, she’d walk away.
But that didn’t happen. Because this was not any normal day. At almost the exact moment Feinstein was officially letting the press know she was done with politics, events were coming to fruition that would ensure her political career was only just beginning.
On the morning of Nov. 27, 1978, former Supervisor Dan White, who’d quit his job and then fruitlessly begged Mayor George Moscone to be reinstated, left his Excelsior District home and hopped into a car driven by his erstwhile legislative aide. This was White’s normal route to City Hall, but, again, this was not a normal day. Unbeknownst to his young chauffeur or anyone else, White, a former cop, was packing his police-issued .38 Special, plus 10 extra cartridges in his pocket. He purportedly placed them, carefully, in a handkerchief, so their clinking wouldn’t give him away.
At City Hall, White avoided the metal detectors placed to screen the suspected homicidal zealots aligned with the Rev. Jim Jones, who had coerced nearly 1,000 of his followers into drinking poisoned Flavor-Aid not even 10 days prior. He then secreted his way into a basement window and proceeded to shoot dead the mayor and, after reloading, emptied his gun into Supervisor Milk. Feinstein was the first to discover Milk’s body; she tried to get a pulse, but instead put her finger through a bullet hole.
Dianne Goldman Berman Feinstein was 48 years old. She was a twice-failed mayoral candidate. And now, she was mayor. San Francisco would never be the same.
Feinstein, who was elected to the Senate 31 years ago, died yesterday at age 90. She was, for an appreciable number of Californians, the only senior senator they’d ever known. California politicians do seem to resemble the caretaker at the Overlook Hotel: They’ve always been here.
And that’s why her death resonates so seismically, even though the passing of a nonagenarian, especially one suffering through such public mental and physical travails as Feinstein, hardly registers as a shock. Nonetheless, this death, like those that preceded it, will set in motion any number of crises and alter the lives of any number of elected leaders — and the people and places they represent.
Dianne Feinstein’s improbable ascent is a reminder of how random the social, economic and political destinies of a city can be; you can have a Planning Department, but some things you just can’t plan for. “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht” is the applicable Yiddish expression: “Man Plans, and God Laughs.” But there’s no reason to limit that sentiment to men.
It warrants mentioning that Feinstein, under normal circumstances, wouldn’t have been Board President, in line to succeed Mayor Moscone. Traditionally, that job went to the supervisor who received the most votes — and that would’ve been Quentin Kopp.
“She agreed that if I let her become president of the board, which was John Barbegelata’s idea, she’d, in turn, endorse me for mayor against George Moscone the following year,” recalls Kopp. “She never did. And then George was killed. And she became mayor.”
Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht.
But, while randomness brought Feinstein to power and kickstarted her ascent to national prominence, randomness was not Feinstein’s M.O. Rather the opposite: It would be hard to imagine a more meticulous mayor — and, later, senator.
“When Dianne was mayor, everyone in the building knew if she was having a good day or a bad day. Because she was involved in every detail,” remembers former city controller and PUC general manager Ed Harrington.
“Even when she was senator, the guy in charge of the airport told me he finally figured out they’d have the airplane pilots radio in which side of the plane she was sitting on. So, when they landed, he made sure that side of the runway was clean.”
Former Feinstein aides confirmed that, yes, when driving her around town, she would ask them to pull over if she saw trash on the street. They’d toss it in the trunk and, later that night, Feinstein and husband, Dick Blum, would throw it away.
When going over the PUC’s vast budget, Harrington recalls Feinstein sussing out details as arcane as some trucks having air conditioning and some not — and inquiring whether air conditioning was a necessary expenditure. (Long story short: Those trucks were up at Hetch Hetchy, where it gets hot. The expenditure was made.)
“Dianne’s impacts have been on the expectations of what a mayor does,” says Jim Lazarus, an aide to Feinstein both as mayor and senator. “Some mayors have met that expectation better than others since the time of Dianne.”
When Feinstein took over, San Franciscans still remembered mayors who held “real” jobs while running the city part-time. That changed: “Dianne was a 24/7 mayor, whether it was making sure litter was picked up or potholes were filled or how many bulbs were planted by Rec and Park,” Lazarus continued. “When the Chronicle ran something that had an impact on our lives at City Hall, we’d get calls at 7:30 a.m. San Francisco is a big city and a small town — and the small town side expects responsiveness.”
“I remember Dianne was on 60 Minutes. And the interviewer told her that San Francisco was perceived as unmanageable. She interrupted him and said ‘That’s not true. I’m managing it.’ By the time she left in January 1988, everybody knew it.”
And, if you’re seeing a contrast with present-day San Francisco, so are the people who worked alongside Mayor Feinstein.
“The insistence on involvement and quality and responsiveness that emanates from City Hall doesn’t appear to have been set in concrete,” says former San Francisco chief administrative officer Rudy Nothenberg. “It depends on the personality of the mayor. Dianne brought that quality to her job there.”
“No matter what you think of her politics, Dianne Feinstein kept this city together,” says her successor, former mayor Art Agnos. “Dianne stabilized and secured this city during some of the most problematic times in our entire history, going back to the Gold Rush.”
“And, as you know,” he continued, “I am no fan of her politics. But no matter what you think of her approach to city planning or any other issue — she kept this city together. Having gone through the experience of being mayor, I’m not sure anyone could’ve done it better than she did.”
But Feinstein’s forcefulness also came with a vision — and that vision continues to shape San Francisco. “Mayor Moscone was taking the city down a path toward much more progressive politics,” notes Harrington. “She stopped that.”
Former San Francisco Police Chief Charles Gain probably wouldn’t have ended up running a trailer park if Moscone had continued being mayor. But Feinstein took over, and that’s what happened. The chief who saw fit to paint San Francisco’s “Police Services” cars a non-threatening robin’s egg blue was dismissed, and the city reverted to a more traditional law-and-order mode.
A panoply of factors lead cities to rise, fall or something in between. But the city mayor facing those factors was Feinstein (along with an at-large, pro-business Board of Supervisors; district elections were curtailed in the wake of White’s murder spree). And Feinstein handled the vast torrents of wealth inundating San Francisco in the 1980s in the manner she saw fit. The civic boosterism that led to her much-vaunted advocacy of the cable cars also led to the entrenchment of San Francisco as a city awash in (and dependent on) conventions, corporate headquarters and burgeoning office towers.
Present-day San Francisco political observers may be surprised to learn that homelessness cropped up as a major problem all the way back during Feinstein’s tenure. “Could she have solved it?” asked Nothenberg. “I don’t know that anybody can solve it.”
No one person or one city can, but Feinstein’s approach to homelessness (and affordability) most certainly did not.
Her Downtown Plan “pushed development down Second Street, down to the south. And that finally culminated in the whole shift of the business community to SoMa and Mission Bay. That was the plan,” says Nothenberg.
“Things don’t happen haphazardly, and cities don’t run themselves. Dianne got involved even into the designs of the high-rises. She was everywhere.”
Heavy lies the crown on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pomaded head, as he is now tasked with appointing his second senator. Newsom has further pledged to choose a Black woman for the job — a pledge it would be awkward to walk back at this time. [Update, Oct. 3: He tapped Laphonza Butler on Oct. 2.]
No political insider I spoke with expected Newsom to name the Black woman who followed him in his old job as mayor of San Francisco: London Breed. It is unclear what opinions he has on her performance, the invidious perception of San Francisco as an avatar of liberal misrule and the conga line of city officials popped by the feds under her watch. But, to elevate Breed would be to hand the mayoralty, even temporarily, to former Newsom antagonist Aaron Peskin — and aid him in a theoretical race for the full-time gig.
Newsom, colleagues say, was loath to show his hand while Feinstein lived. He purportedly felt it was gauche and insensitive to talk about such things. But he has little choice in the matter now, and it would behoove him to move quickly. All of the factors that would’ve made it problematic for even an unwell Feinstein to resign are still there. Republicans can still play nasty games regarding the seating of her replacement to the Committee on the Judiciary, thereby paralyzing the judicial confirmation process.
More broadly, the senate is a place that runs on seniority and nobody had more of that than Feinstein. Harrington recalls a meeting during which Sen. Feinstein referred to a city sewage treatment center to her staff as “my plant,” and ordered them to “take care of it.” This kind of home cookin’ for San Francisco is likely over.
Dianne Feinstein’s career was, in large part, sparked by a crisis. And its end sparks a crisis of a different sort. Perhaps that’s cyclical. Perhaps that’s just life.
“I’m glad she went out on her own terms,” says Agnos. “It reflects the determination she showed during her whole period as mayor of San Francisco.”