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News + PoliticsThe local record and legacy of Dianne Feinstein

The local record and legacy of Dianne Feinstein

Let's celebrate her accomplishments. But there's another story that needs to be told. I was there.

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I know: De mortuis nil nisi bonum. I have been a journalist for more than 40 years. When a prominent figure like Dianne Feinstein dies, nobody wants to say anything that isn’t positive.

And I was going to just stay out of this one.

She was, by any account, a formidable politician who had a major impact on the city. Let her rest in peace.

But the hagiography, sometimes simply inaccurate, has reached a level where I have to correct the record.

Feinstein had a lasting impact on the city.

I covered Feinstein when she was mayor, starting in 1982. I covered her unsuccessful run for governor. I followed her career in the Senate (and yes, the Bay Guardian endorsed her for that job in 1992, along with Barbara Boxer. More on that later.)

First, a story.

The Bay Guardian was never a big supporter of Mayor Feinstein. At one point, in 1979, when she was moving to tear down the I-Hotel, the paper ran a cover story titled “The week Feinstein tried to wreck San Francisco.” When other reporters asked her about it, she said “I don’t read the Bay Guardian. It depresses me.”

In 1983, we endorsed a move to recall her from office (again, more later).

I wrote dozens of stories about her disastrous urban planning policies. At one point, her media office refused to send me routine press releases so I wouldn’t know when she would be attending public events. When I complained (that’s not actually legal) the office started sending the releases with no zip code on them, so they would arrive after the events were over.

I’m not making this up.

So: In 2005, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom met Sen. Feinstein at SFO, and they were taking the limo back to the city, when Feinstein decided, on a whim, to tell the driver to stop by the Bay Guardian office, which was on the way.

From Bruce:

They were at the front desk waiting for me.  Feinstein explained they were coming from the airport and she said, let’s stop and see Bruce. She was the one who wanted the talk, not Newsom.  I suggested the three of us go into. The conference room to talk.  They said no, they just wantEd to chat. 

So we did, very pleasantly, almost like old friends. I told her about my favorite remembrance of her. Which she really wanted to hear.  I said it as a miserable cold rainy day in the anti-war years, and she was leading a group [of anti-war demonstrators], all with umbrellas, walking round and round Union Square in the rain.  Those of us covering the demonstration were huddled together across the street, miserable as hell, watching her and the rest. Gradually, the picketers dropped off and only Feinstein was left, deftly holding her umbrella. Round and round she went until all the press people were gone and only she was left.  

“Dianne,” I said to her standing at the Bay Guardian counter. “That was a magnificent performance. You were at your best.” She replied, “Bruce, I don’t remember it.” To this day, I believe her.

But through our many decades, I always liked Dianne, and am sorry to see her go. 

Yes, she could be charming. She was a native San Franciscan, and the first woman to become mayor of this city. She was also, technically, the first woman to represent California in the US Senate, although Boxer won her seat in the same election.

Boxer ran and won on a very progressive platform, including a call for big cuts in wasteful military spending and more scrutiny of Supreme Court nominees, after the disaster that was the Clarence Thomas hearing.  Feinstein’s slogan was “the only Democrat who supports the death penalty.”

Because of a bit of arcane Senate protocol, Feinstein was sworn in a few minutes before Boxer, making here the senior senator and the first woman Senator from California.

Others have written about how she was going to get out of politics until the Moscone-Milk assassinations thrust her into the role of mayor, a job she’d sought and lost twice before.

I want to talk about what she did when she got that office.

Feinstein was honest, direct, a strong leader, and never corrupt. The kind of behavior that has the FBI crawling all over City Hall was never going to happen in her administration. There’s a lot to be said for that.

She was a role model for and opened the doors to a generation of women in local and national politics.

But the media narrative is that Feinstein “pulled the city together” after the horrifying assassinations is wrong. Actually, what she did was immediately move to dismantle everything that Moscone and Milk had worked for.

She quickly fired Moscone’s two progressive planning commissioners, Charlie Starbuck and Ina Dearman, signaling that the city was open to anything developers wanted. She then moved to help the campaign to get rid of district elections.

Everything the Moscone-Milk coalition had built was under immediate, and generally successful, assault. It wasn’t about “pulling the city together.” It was about defeating the left.

She supported the demolition of the I-Hotel, which helped destroy Manilatown and one of the biggest battles in San Francisco housing history.

Feinstein vetoed the nation’s first bill, by the late Sup. Harry Britt, that would have given domestic partners who worked for the city the right to healthcare benefits that they were denied because gay people couldn’t get married.

Then she vetoed a measure by Sup. Nancy Walker declaring “Reproductive Rights Day” in San Francisco, saying it was “too divisive.”

That happened right after a weird fringe group of radically pro-gun leftists called the White Panther Party got mad at Feinstein signing a gun-control bill (one issue she was always good on) and circulated recall petitions.

Most of the people who signed the petitions didn’t oppose gun control. They were mad about her other decisions.

Feinstein, with the help of husband Dick Blum, raised a huge sum of money from the local business and development community and easily crushed the recall.

The Bay Guardian supported it—not because of gun control (we were on her side) but because she had totally turned the city over to real-estate developers.

She was terrible on tenant issues. She vetoed a 1984 Britt bill that would have extended rent control to vacant apartments (even then-Sup. Quentin Kopp voted for it). That would have saved the homes of thousands of renters and kept housing prices much lower for years—and might have forced then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown to block the Costa-Hawkins Act, which outlawed effective rent control. It would have been hard for him to screw his own city and his own constituents.

Britt’s legislation was transformative, a once-in-a-career bill that would have changed forever the lives of tens of thousands of tenants, given the city a weapon against evictions and displacement, and made housing more affordable for generations of renters. Tenant groups organized for their lives to pass it. We could have had it. Except for Feinstein.

The gentrification, we called it “Manhattanization,” of San Francisco, the process of allowing developers to build without limit, and without paying any fees that would alleviate the impacts of their office towers on housing, displacement, schools, Muni or anything else in the city, was rampant on her watch.

Thousands of low-income people were forced out of the city because of her policies.

In fact, her administration sowed the seeds for what we are now reaping: A monocrop office economy facing a crisis because all of the more diverse businesses, including blue-collar jobs, were crushed in the name of finance, insurance, real-estate, and later tech.

Feinstein personally intervened with city departments to prevent San Francisco from even considering the municipalization of PG&E.

She never once appeared at a Pride Parade, because she was afraid photos of her at that event might hurt her future career.

She opposed same-sex marriage and told Newsom that it was “too much, too fast” when he ordered the city clerk to allow those nuptials. (Although activist Jim Haas once said that Feinstein didn’t care who you slept with, as long as you were in bed by 11 o’clock.)

Here’s Tom Ammiano on Facebook:

So folks die that u and other progressives have had major issues with. The day she voted against domestic partner benefits did me in. Especially since it was done at the behest of the Catholic Church.The thing that bothered me with her when they did something positive towards lgbt + it had to be on their terms in her case be proper don’t act up, please overlook other policies that effect poorly on lgbt+ housing health police. And above all genuflect. Hearing from

media asking to testify to all the good she did for LGBT + ,yes of a certain class and with strings. Politics demands camouflage for many and pandering as well. The late Harry Britt was a class act and near the end we were talking, and he was remarkably tempered towards her, as a matter of fact the next day he got a very personal note from her expressing care and real concern. As in many cases I learned something from him. Her passing reminds me of the many unsung people who fought the good fight and have passed without any fanfare. In respectfully observing her death let’s not forget them.

Gwenn Craig on Facebook:

I had a complicated history with Dianne Feinstein. I can recall several occasions when I sat across from her when she was Mayor and the atmosphere was… contentious. The first time was when she was the appointed mayor and looking for the newly-renamed Harvey Milk Club to endorse her for her election to the position. Our endorsement would make all the difference and she knew it and we knew it. She made a promise on the floor of the Club’s endorsement meeting that she would appoint members of our community to city boards and commissions “commensurate with your numbers in the city’s population.” Much applause. She got the Club’s endorsement, she got the votes she needed from the electorate, and history was made. She never fulfilled the promise she made that night; she did make a prominent appointment of lesbian Jo Daly to the Police Commission but she pretty much stopped there.

As vice president, then president, of the Milk Club, I sat in more meetings than I can count that Dianne held regularly as Mayor with the people she recognized as the lesbian and gay leaders of the community. Since our club was founded to be a progressive voice for the community, I always saw my role as to represent the progressive principles and views about the issues of those times. I think Dianne maybe saw me as a bit of an irritant because of that but I was disaffected by that — after all, I wasn’t exactly trying to be a part of her fan base.

It’s been so interesting to see so many references in the media recently to her being a champion for LGBT rights when I can remember when she was such a prude about this community. She made a point of not appearing in the Gay Pride Parade year after year, not for lack of an invitation, but because she was told that she might be photographed with naked men. After she vetoed the Domestic Partners Ordinance following closely on the heels of the San Francisco Archbishop’s denunciation of the ordinance as “evil,” many LGBT people turned against her and supported recall efforts that had been placed on the ballot. In defending and promoting her, I’ve seen posts where people have fabricated things that she just never did, like fight for a gay rights plank in the Democratic Party platform at the 1980 Convention (she didn’t; I know because I was a lesbian delegate to that convention, and I know that she played no role in our platform struggles for the language on gay rights that we eventually managed to have in that year’s platform). Before she left the Mayor’s Office, I don’t think anyone IN this city would have described her as a fighter for LGBT rights.

But… in the end, and we are most definitely at the end with Dianne Feinstein, I truly hate to get stuck on the Dianne of the 70s and 80s, and I have tried to be positive about her because of the achievements she went on to make in her later years, after she became the first woman elected to the US Senate. I can actually see how she did appear to grow and change along with the rest of America on LGBTQ issues and liberated herself from some of the more conservative viewpoints that she had held earlier in her political career. When you’ve looked at someone up close as I had the opportunity to do, you can maybe better appreciate their weaknesses and she definitely had them and the LGBTQ community in San Francisco suffered them while she was supervisor and mayor. But looking at what she went on to do in the Senate on LGBTQ rights, on gun control, on exposing torture by government forces, I know that I can forgive the Dianne of that past experience now at long last and celebrate her lasting achievements in higher office. I’m willing to accept the truth of what she accomplished — I just want the truth to be told about the rest.

In the Senate, she supported the Bush invasion of Iraq, and the detentions at Guantanamo Bay. She later was nasty to a group of kids who wanted her to support the Green New Deal. She talked about how wonderful the Republicans were at the hearing that confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court (a move that would guarantee the end of Roe v Wade.)

She thought of herself as a centrist, and seemed to believe that these were still the old days when Republicans and Democrats could work together. But those days are long over, and she kept up the pretense when others realized that the Republicans were not interested in governing any more.

She never demonstrated any concern about economic inequality or poor people, either as mayor or as senator. Her friends and allies were rich, and she was of and for them.

She will be celebrated for her many accomplishments, and she will deserve that. I’m sorry it had to end this way; she should have retired before this last term, so should could have had, and enjoyed, all the accolades.

But that wasn’t her way. Nobody told Feinstein what to do. She held her own against all comers, all the way to the end. Good for her.

I just want, as Gwen Craig says, the truth to be told about the rest.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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