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Column: Straight-talking Feinstein was California’s best

Dianne Feinstein was the kind of dedicated, workaholic, straight-talking public servant we’d like all our elected officials to be.

She put the public’s interest first, far ahead of her own political self-interest.

To crib from a tired cliche, Feinstein was a workhorse, not a show horse. But for most of her career she was powerful and articulate enough to also exhibit charisma and possess cachet.

She was tough in her determination to solve problems, but willing to bend in compromise to accomplish something. She was principled but pragmatic, combative but civil — traits that have lost favor in today’s polarized politics.

Not everyone liked Feinstein’s politics, although she was elected to the U.S. Senate six times and was the longest-serving senator in California history when she died Friday at 90. She also was a senator longer than any other woman — 30 years plus.

Some liberals considered her too conservative, and conservatives thought she was too liberal. She was pretty much a centrist, an endangered species in today’s extremist, gridlocked governing.

“Politics now is tribal,” says Jerry Roberts, a Feinstein biographer. “She was in nobody’s tribe. She was a moderate, pragmatic problem solver.”

Regardless of Feinstein’s politics, her legislating talent and commitment to problem solving made her a role model for voters of all political hues — or should have, if some weren’t blinded by ideological purity.

One brief chat with Feinstein told me a lot about her. We both were standing at a book rack in the Sacramento airport after a 1990 gubernatorial campaign trip. She was looking for a book to read and relax.

I said Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” was a page turner and a fascinating story about the Old West. “That sounds good,” she said and grabbed the thick paperback. I was instantly impressed that this sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman wanted to read about cowboys.

The former Democratic mayor from San Francisco lost that race for governor to Republican Sen. Pete Wilson. But two years later, Feinstein and Democratic Rep. Barbara Boxer became the first California women to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

“Trailblazer” has been the noun most often used to characterize Feinstein — a trailblazer for women. She was the first female mayor of San Francisco.

Feinstein inspired women to shoot for high career goals in politics and is credited with mentoring many. They include former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, Boxer from adjacent Marin County, Vice President Kamala Harris — former San Francisco district attorney — and Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis.

“She showed that women could play in the big leagues,” Kounalakis says.

“She embodied the power of women in the political arena,” says Susan Kennedy, former communications director for Feinstein and a top aide to Democratic Gov. Gray Davis and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“She cut a path for women to be equal to men even if they were wearing high heels. She was more powerful than most men. She encouraged women to not just be tokens.”

Feinstein was the best California senator in history, in my view. That’s not solely because of her longevity. It’s because of the power she accumulated, her legislative effectiveness and overall body of work.

Feinstein was gutsy.

She battled the CIA and the intelligence community for years to expose the un-American torture of terrorist suspects.

She took on the gun lobby in 1994 and maneuvered through Congress a 10-year ban on the sale of assault weapons. That was during a very competitive reelection campaign. And the gun ban probably cost her votes in rural California.

One nasty event in Chico is etched in my memory. Gun rights advocates were protesting the senator’s bill. A man in jeans and a little girl were on the sidewalk. As Feinstein stepped out of a car, the man took the child by her hand, knelt and pointed his finger at the senator from about an arm’s reach.

“Look,” he told the girl. “That’s what you don’t want to grow up to be like.” In the warped mind of this father, a female United States senator was not a fitting role model for his daughter.

Many years later, Feinstein was hooted in her hometown for the sin of hoping that the no-class President Trump would get his act together. We’d become so polarized that it was taboo to wish an American president well. But that was Feinstein’s civil nature.

“I just hope he has the ability to learn and change. And if he does, he can be a good president. And that is my hope,” she told San Francisco’s high-tone Commonwealth Club in 2017.

People booed.

“I have to be able to get things done,” she replied. “You have to work with people. And a punch in the nose isn’t going to do it.”

Collaborative politics worked for Feinstein and for California. Proof is in her legislation creating the Mojave Desert and Death Valley national parks. And it’s in the years-long struggle to obtain more water for San Joaquin Valley farms, which irked environmentalists.

“She was remarkable in her ability to look at problems and find needed solutions,” says Bill Carrick, her longtime political consultant. “Whether those solutions were good or bad for her politically didn’t really matter to her.

“In fact, she didn’t really get much [politically] out of the water and desert protection.”

Toward the end, Feinstein became physically fragile. So what? So was FDR. But her cognitive ability also noticeably slipped.

There was a chorus — especially from libs — for her to resign. The senator refused, wanting to serve out her term. No one was hurt by her hanging on, except probably Feinstein. Her dignity and reputation suffered. She deserved better.

Looking ahead, political journalist and former Feinstein press secretary Gil Duran says: “We’re going to need a lot more leaders with this kind of perseverance, grit and dedication.”

But it’s unlikely we’ll see another Feinstein for a very long time, if ever. She was unique.

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