Over the course of her political career, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein has shattered more than one glass ceiling: She was the first female mayor of San Francisco and the first Jewish woman elected to the United States Senate; the first woman to chair the Senate’s all-important committees on Rules and Intelligence, and the first to have presided over a presidential inauguration in 2008.
But in recent years, Sen. Feinstein has made headlines not for bills she has introduced, but rather over questions about her fitness for the role she has held for the last three decades.
Earlier this year, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a fellow California lawmaker, who the outlet did not identify, had to repeatedly introduce themself to the now 89-year-old senator, though they had met many times before.
The explosive article led to chatter on and off Capitol Hill about whether Dianne Feinstein was still fit to serve. Hans Johnson, a Democratic political consultant and president of Progressive Victory, says the claims against Feinstein are ageist.
“We're not used to senior women leaders in this country. And we know that senior women leaders who seek to break ground, as we witnessed in the 2016 presidential campaign, can be subjected to double standards, slurs and efforts both explicitly and implicitly, to rally gender bias against them,” said Johnson. “I think we need to recognize that there are biases afoot in the evaluation of Senator Feinstein.”
In recent years, there have been similar cases of declining health of senior senators. Strom Thurmond, a senator from South Carolina infamously known for giving the longest filibuster in U.S. history against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, served until he was 100 years old. His health had decline to the point in 2001 where he needed assistance making his way to and from the floor, his hearing had declined, and he barely spoke.
Robert Byrd, a senator from West Virginia and Senate President Pro Tempore (making him fourth in line for the Presidency), was so ill he needed a live-in nurse to tend to him, and he later died in office.
“There are biases afoot in the evaluation of Sen. Feinstein, even as we are recognizing that as a human being, who is 89, who has just lost her husband, and in a position where women often have caregiving responsibilities thrust upon them,” argued Johnson. “We have to recognize that there is both a person here but also a figure who is breaking new ground in terms of seniority, and that there are biases that confront people who tried to break new ground, especially women in public service.”
In a review of votes cast and and attended conducted by Spectrum News, Feinstein’s record appears to show the picture of a lawmaker doing the work in the Senate, though it’s difficult to prove whether it is her staff or Feinstein herself who play a major role in making sure she gets to votes on time and introducing legislation.
During the 117th Congress (from Jan. 2021 - present), Feinstein has introduced 60 bills, the most she has done in the last 8 years (from 2019 - 2020, she introduced 59). In a tally of all her years in Congress, she has missed 336 votes, though a third of them came over the last two years when her late husband was dying of cancer.
The number of votes missed is still much higher than that of the second-oldest member of the Senate, Chuck Grassley who missed 46 votes since 1979.
While she is still showing up for votes and introducing legislation, there is no denying that a change in the senior California senator is visible.
“When you look back at clips of Dianne Feinstein from 1992, when she ran for the Senate 1994, when she successfully pushed the assault weapons ban, even 2014 when she released that CIA torture report, you saw someone who was very much in control was very cogent, and very much on top of her game,” said Scott Shafer, senior politics editor at KQED.
“More recently, she's older, of course, she is, like 90 years old now and it shows. I hear anecdotally from people who have met with her that it shows and she's also been much less visible.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein has not held a town hall with constituents since 2017. She has also slowly withdrawn from giving speeches on the floor, giving just 4 over the last two years.
Barbara Boxer, a retired California senator who won her seat along Feinstein in 1992, says she still talks to Feinstein with some frequency and calls the criticism of the senator “politics.”
“Every single thing that you do, or say every mistake you make, every slip up you have and we've all had the you know, it becomes elevated with social media,” said Boxer.
“I think people should just take a deep breath, and Senator Feinstein will leave when she decides to leave,” she added. “If you want to run for her seat, if that's who some of these people are [spreading the rumors], well get ready to run, because at some point, one of the two seats will open up, so it's fine, but you don't have to, you know, hurt somebody or make them look bad.”
Boxer did admit she has told her friend that there is a great life outside the Senate.
“I wanted her to know how wonderful it's been for me. Do I miss being in the middle of everything? Of course, and, that really more relates to the staff and the relationships with colleagues are so wonderful, that I try to keep up. And we do have reunions,” she explained. “My message to Dianne has always been, you do what you want to do, but just know, there is life after the Senate. And it's good.”
Feinstein’s seat will be up for re-election in 2024. It’s unclear what her intentions are about another term, but Johnson expects she will retire.
“I think she will probably adhere to the pattern that Senator Boxer established with her announcement in early 2015 that she would not be seeking reelection in 2016,” explained Johnson. “If that standard is anything like a guiding light for the future, we may be looking at an announcement from Senator finance sign as soon as January just three months from now about her plans to retire, and to open up a campaign for a successor.”
Shafer says he thinks the senator made a misstep running for re-election in 2018.
“I've talked with people who know her very well. and asked, Why didn't she just retire? Why didn't she spend time with her grandchildren, you know, do that sort of thing,” said Shafer.
“She sees public service as the most important thing you can do. And the idea of walking away from that after you've sacrificed and gained so much seniority as she has, it's just a very difficult, impossible thing for her to do. She just really couldn't see herself doing anything other than being in the Senate and representing California.”
Will this moment tarnish her legacy as a trailblazer for women in the senate? Only history can answer that. But the senator argues she is putting in the work.
“During the 117th Congress, which began January 2021, I have introduced 60 bills and 18 resolutions and filed 61 amendments,” Feinstein said in a statement to Spectrum News. “Those included the Respect for Marriage Act to codify same-sex marriage and the bill that reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act. I contributed legislation to the first major gun safety legislation in two decades and helped secure significant increases in federal resources to combat wildfire and drought, two critical issues for California,” she added.
“This has been a very busy and productive two years,” she added. “I continue to work as hard as I can to solve problems for the people of California, which is why they sent me to Washington, and my record clearly reflects that.”