Tearful mourners line up at San Francisco City Hall to thank, pay last respects to Dianne Feinstein
Mourners streamed into San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday to pay their respects to the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, honoring her as fearless, smart and the glue who kept the city together after two political assassinations that catapulted her into the mayor’s office and the national spotlight.
“She wasn’t afraid to do a man’s job. She wasn’t afraid to be a senator. She wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted,” said Lawanda Carter, 48, of San Francisco. “And that’s encouragement for us women now to have courage.”
Carter was among the scores of everyday San Franciscans and political leaders alike who brought flowers, bowed their heads or clasped their hands in prayer as they stood before Feinstein's casket, which was draped in an American flag and on display behind velvet ropes. Many said they had never met Feinstein, but wanted to honor an indefatigable public servant who fought to level the playing field for women, members of the LGBTQ community and racial minorities.
Feinstein died early Friday in her Washington, D.C., home of natural causes, said Adam Russell, a spokesperson for her office. She was 90.
She was San Francisco's first female mayor and one of California's first two women U.S. senators, a job she first won alongside Barbara Boxer in 1992, dubbed the “ Year of the Woman.” Former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also of San Francisco, and Mayor London Breed were among the officials who paid their respects.
Feinstein spent much of her career in the U.S. Senate but will be known as the forever mayor of San Francisco, a role she inherited in tragedy. She was president of the Board of Supervisors in November 1978 when a former supervisor assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, at City Hall. Feinstein, who found Milk's body, became acting mayor and won election twice to serve as mayor until 1988.
Georgia Otterson, 76, a health care administrator, said Feinstein wasn’t as politically liberal as she would have liked, but the late mayor earned her respect with how she kept the heartbroken city together.
“We were all mourning together, holding candles. If memory serves me, Joan Baez sang," Otterson said of an impromptu march that night from the historically gay Castro District to City Hall. “And she held us up.”
As a centrist Democrat, she was criticized by some more liberal voters, including for her longtime support for the death penalty, and as the country became more polarized, for her collegial relationship with Republicans. But the straight, white woman largely earned the gratitude of a city that celebrates its racial and sexual diversity.
She steered San Francisco through the HIV and AIDS crisis, bringing attention to an epidemic ignored by President Ronald Reagan. She also secured federal and private funding to save the city’s iconic cable cars from death by deterioration.
Feinstein led the city as it played host to the Democratic National Convention in 1984. Another San Francisco tradition — “Fleet Week” — was started by Feinstein in 1981, and this year’s annual celebration of air shows, naval ships and military bands is dedicated to her. Breed recalled looking up to Feinstein when she was a Black kid growing up in public housing and playing the French horn in a middle school band that performed regularly at mayoral events.
“She was so proud of us and she said so, and she took the time to talk to us, express how amazing we were and to remind us that we were her band,” Breed said at a news conference the day after Feinstein's death.
Mourners Wednesday expressed their pride in Feinstein.
“She kept moving on up. I was proud of her, very proud of her,” said Dorothy Hudson, 81, a retired federal government employee. “She was very kind, very smart. She opened doors up to let people know, 'You can do it.'”
San Francisco native Cari Donovan placed a bouquet of red and pink lilies and daisies on the floor before the casket. She lingered, crying quietly over a woman she never knew but who was so important to her life.
“She championed and fought for the rights of so many people,” Donovan said. “I'm so grateful. And I really just wanted her family to know how much she meant to me.”
The social worker said she talked to her 28-year-old daughter about the battles Feinstein fought so that younger generations of women could dream bigger. “She was a lioness.” While Feinstein's career sent her to Washington, she remained deeply involved in the affairs of San Francisco, the city where she was born and raised. She often called her successors — including Gov. Gavin Newsom — to complain about potholes or trash and to offer advice and encouragement.
John Konstin Sr., owner of John’s Grill, a favorite downtown tourist destination and watering hole for city politicians, recalled Feinstein ordering potholes filled, trees trimmed and ugly scaffolding brought down before San Francisco hosted the 1984 Democratic convention. “She asked, ‘How long has this scaffolding been up?’ And my dad said ‘Maybe 10 years,’ and the next day it came down," said Konstin, 59. “It was half a block of scaffolding.”
The restaurant, which is celebrating its 115th anniversary Wednesday, honored Feinstein with flowers beneath a portrait of her that hangs on a wall.
Feinstein's body will remain in City Hall through the evening and a memorial service is scheduled Thursday outside the building.
Speakers will include Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Feinstein’s granddaughter Eileen Mariano. President Joe Biden will deliver remarks via recorded video.
Among the first to say goodbye Wednesday were Jose Romero Cooper and Mark Cooper.
The married couple waited in line before doors opened to the public.
“What I’m gonna say is: ‘Thank you for everything, for being strong,’” said Romero Cooper, 61, a scarf of the American flag draped around his neck.
He stood before the casket, genuflected and crossed himself, then walked away with tears streaming down his face.