A young deputy district attorney at the time, Harris was still years away from becoming San Francisco DA, winning statewide office and then vaulting to the apex of federal power. But Harris said she began that arc after Feinstein demonstrated what was possible.
“Dianne, the women of America have come a long way,” Harris said. “Our country has come a long way, and you helped move the ball forward.”
San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a San Francisco native who met then-Mayor Feinstein as a 12-year-old and followed her into City Hall decades later, said the late senator changed the landscape for women in politics.
“Kids my age, we just always accepted that a woman could be in charge, that a woman could do whatever a man could do,” Breed said.
Now the generation that Feinstein helped empower has come into its own. The somber gathering of hundreds of mourners honoring Feinstein’s legacy marked a larger shift that is redefining California politics.
For the first time in a half-century, Feinstein is off the political stage. At the same time, her cohort has gradually given way to a younger class of elected officials. Many of those younger women, like Breed and Harris, have never known California without Feinstein in office.
Before Breed delivered a eulogy Thursday, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown — a titan of California politics who once employed a young Breed as an intern — appeared on a City Hall balcony and surveyed the city he led for years. Another towering figure, former four-time Gov. Jerry Brown, sat in the audience. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, who with Feinstein formed a one-two punch of California clout, spoke of Feinstein’s indomitability.
“Dianne — all your life, you have challenged everyone to do our best,” Pelosi said, noting she owned a T-shirt bearing the phrase “I survived Dianne’s staff meetings.”
Speaker after speaker honored Feinstein’s legacy, recalling her indissoluble ties to San Francisco, her policy achievements and her rigor. Screens flashed images of career milestones: a newly-elected young Mayor Feinstein ebulliently spreading her arms, a Senate nameplate marking the power of “Mrs. Feinstein, Chairman.”
But the memorial also underscored a hinge moment in the state Feinstein served for decades.
In the battle for Feinstein’s Senate seat, candidates are touting their progressivism to an electorate that is significantly more Democratic than the one that first elected Feinstein. Long-serving House members have been retiring in waves, with California Rep. Grace Napolitano declaring her retirement this year after a half-dozen members declined re-election last cycle. Feinstein’s longtime teammate, former Sen. Barbara Boxer, stepped aside in 2017.
Among the dozens of Congress members in the audience were some who are running to succeed Feinstein in the Senate. Rep. Barbara Lee entered with a procession of the California delegation. Rep. Adam Schiff, shirt sleeves rolled up in the punishing heat, waded into the crowd to shake hands and mingle. People strained for a glimpse of newly appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler, who has not announced whether she plans to run for a full Senate term.
San Francisco has a record of producing national Democratic leaders like Feinstein. Grieving her on Thursday were Harris and Gov. Gavin Newsom, who both emerged from the city’s fiercely tribal politics and could be vying for the White House in 2028.
President Joe Biden didn’t attend the funeral and instead made pre-recorded remarks praising Feinstein’s influence over Washington and the nation. Biden said her death should serve as a reminder that “our democracy depends on the constitution of our character as a people.”
The White House hasn’t commented about Biden’s absence, though Pelosi said the president expressed regret that he couldn’t accompany Feinstein’s body home to San Francisco over the weekend on a plane from his military fleet. “He said, ‘My only wish was that I could have been on the plane taking her home,’” Pelosi recounted.
Pelosi, a close personal friend to Feinstein, recalled how the best advice Feinstein ever gave her encouraged her to be judicious about confrontations.
“Nancy, you don’t always have to be the one going out on the attack,” Pelosi recalled her saying. “Let some other people do that.”