Oldest sitting US senator Dianne Feinstein dies aged 90

Death of pioneer for women in US politics leaves Democrats with majority of one in Senate

Dianne Feinstein, the veteran Democratic senator from California and a pioneer for women in American politics, has died, aged 90.

Ms Feinstein died at her home in Washington late on Thursday, James Sauls, Ms Feinstein’s chief of staff, confirmed on Friday.

“Her passing is a great loss for so many, from those who loved and cared for her to the people of California that she dedicated her life to serving,” Sauls said, adding that his late boss “never backed away from a fight for what was just and right”. He called Ms Feinstein a “force of nature who made an incredible impact on our country and her home state”.

Ms Feinstein’s death follows a notable deterioration in her health that had raised concerns among Democrats on Capitol Hill, and heightened the debate in Washington over the older ages of many prominent US politicians.


Until she is replaced, Ms Feinstein’s death will bring the number of senators who side with Democrats to 50 in the upper chamber of Congress, narrowing the party’s governing majority to just one senator.

US president Joe Biden, a long-time colleague of Ms Feinstein’s in the Senate, praised his “cherished friend” as a “pioneering American” and “true trailblazer”.

“Dianne made her mark on everything, from national security to the environment to protecting civil liberties,” Mr Biden said. “She’s made history in so many ways, and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations.”

Ms Feinstein was seen as a pioneer for women in Democratic and California politics, serving three terms as mayor of San Francisco before being elected to the US Senate in a special election in 1992.

She was the first female mayor of San Francisco, taking over at City Hall at a fraught time, after the assassinations of the mayor George Moscone and councillor Harvey Milk.

In more than three decades in the Senate, she held several senior roles, including chair of the powerful Senate intelligence committee, and spearheaded several important pieces of legislation, including the 1994 federal assault weapons ban.

But Ms Feinstein’s later years were marred by uncomfortable questions about her mental and physical fitness for higher office. She was absent from the Senate for several months earlier this year following a bout of shingles, prompting calls for her resignation from some in the Democratic Party.

The California senator had already said she did not intend to seek re-election to another six-year term, triggering a fierce competition for her seat in 2024. Several prominent Democrats, including House members Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, have launched primary campaigns for the party’s nomination for the position.

Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic governor, will now need to appoint a replacement for Ms Feinstein to serve the remainder of her term. Mr Newsom has not indicated who he will pick for the position, but issued a statement on Friday celebrating her as his “lifelong mentor” and “role model”.

Tributes poured in on Friday morning from Democrats and Republicans alike, who praised Ms Feinstein for her lifelong public service.

Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the House and fellow stalwart of San Francisco Democratic politics, said she was “heartbroken” to learn of her long-time friend’s passing.

“For decades, Senator Feinstein was a pillar of public service in California,” Pelosi said. “Her indomitable, indefatigable leadership made a magnificent difference for our national security and personal safety, the health of our people and our planet, and the strength of our democracy.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023