Her influence on staffers is less known than her political achievements on gun safety, water and exposing CIA torture
I began my political career as an aide to former U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.It was a master class in politics that I still use today.
I was in the front row of history. The Iraq war.The California desert is being protected.The Women’s March for Life. Nominations to the Supreme Court.The recall of California Governor Gray Davis, followed by the election of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Every day began with a phone call from the senator on her way to work. “Hello, Dianne,” she’d say before getting down to business. There will be no politeness. There will be no small talk.
It was the time when she would clean her house. We’d go over the Senate floor agenda, her calendar, and her phone call list.
She was going to consult with her chief of staff. She spent many days talking to her “field marshal,” Roz Wyman, who was her eyes and ears in the state. When Feinstein walked into the office each morning, we were ready to go. There were no dull moments.
Feinstein, who died last week at the age of 90, was a force to be reckoned with — for staff, lobbyists, and Senate colleagues alike. “You could sense when she approached,” former press office employee Colleen Haggerty recently said. People stood straighter, tidied up, and there was a tide of eyes widening and shoulders pulling back exuding excitement, like a wave at a baseball game.”
We had no idea working in her office would have such an impact on us as 20-somethings just starting out in our careers. It taught young women how to be leaders, that we had to be better prepared than the men, that we had to do our homework, or, as she put it, “earn our spurs.”
Some say Feinstein was tough on her employees, but in my opinion, she was just a badass boss.She commanded every room she entered.People respected her organization, her drive, and her leadership.
Every day, she met with Californians who needed her assistance.She worked with staff to develop and advance her legislative agenda.She met with presidents and prime ministers from all over the world. Throughout it all, she asked the same questions: What is the problem we’re attempting to solve? What is the price? Can we get the White House and other senators to back us up?
She was shaping us in this way.
“She appreciated it when women spoke up for themselves.” “She never did favors,” former legislative staffer Natalie Alpert told me. “She always expected us to rise to the occasion and excel without assistance, just as she did.” And she admired the intelligent, sometimes sassy women who didn’t back down when she challenged their assumptions.”
It was a trial by fire, but those who survived emerged transformed.
Yes, her historic political accomplishments included the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act, and holding the CIA accountable for torture.
Her lasting achievements, however, are also found in the work that did not garner as much attention.She devoted a significant amount of time to resolving California’s water issues, protecting the state’s natural resources, and advocating for women’s rights.
For example, she drafted federal legislation to establish and sustain the Breast Cancer Research Stamp, the first fundraising stamp issued by the United States Postal Service.The stamp has been sold over 1.1 billion times and has raised over $96 million to date.
Feinstein instilled a caring, connected, and respectful culture.Every letter sent to the office was answered. Almost every meeting request was granted. And she read weekly reports from every single staff member, detailing who they met with, what the request was, and what our office could do to assist.
Feinstein did, indeed, forge a path. She listened, she cared, and she came through with grit, grace, and courage.
She taught me that I can do difficult things and that if I fail, I must pick myself up and try again. She taught me how to get things done and to accept both my wins and losses.
I will be eternally grateful to Dianne, and I miss her terribly.