Electoralism/Democratism

The Institutionalist: Dianne Feinstein fought for gun control, civil rights, and abortion access for half a century. Where did it all go wrong?

The Cut

On election night in San Francisco in 1969, a 36-year-old woman who had run a campaign for the Board of Supervisors that featured the unconventional use of just her first name, Dianne, was waiting anxiously for results in a race she was not expected to win. The local media had barely covered her. She had earned the endorsement of only one elected official, the state assemblyman Willie Brown. She had initially run the race out of her own house and had taken a risky, forward-looking tactical approach: cultivating support from the city’s growing population of gay voters and environmental conservationists.

As the returns began to trickle in, “it soon became clear that a big local story was unfolding,” Jerry Roberts later wrote in his 1994 book, Dianne Feinstein: Never Let Them See You Cry. “Dianne was not only winning, she was topping the ticket, an unheard-of showing for a nonincumbent, let alone a woman.”

Feinstein was so reluctant to believe the early returns that she had to be persuaded to go to headquarters on Election Night. When she entered the room, she “was thronged by an emotional crowd,” Roberts wrote. One of her supporters joked about “painting City Hall pink.”

The next day, San Francisco’s daily papers blared news of Feinstein’s stunning upset on their front pages. The press homed in on Feinstein’s “dark-haired, blue-eyed beauty” and made sure to note that the woman who would, as the top vote-getter, soon assume control of the Board of Supervisors was dressed in “a fashionable blue Norell original with a bolero top and a wide white belt.”

It’s hard to read about that night and not think of an evening 49 years later, when 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked New York City by winning her scrappy primary campaign for Congress, sending a rush of reporters to belatedly cover a phenomenon known as “AOC,” fetishizing her clothes, her hair, her face. Both women’s entrances into politics were watershed moments. As Feinstein told reporters at the time, her win signaled “a new era, a different kind of politics working strongly for change,” saying of her then-12-year-old daughter’s interest in one day being mayor, “Each generation does better than the one before.”

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