1978: Fog City Gets a Jewish Lady Mayor

Following the murder of Mayor George Moscone, Dianne Feinstein became the first (and so far only) female mayor of San Francisco.

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Feinstein, the first and only female mayor of San Francisco, has been re-elected to the Senate every six years since 1994.
Feinstein, the first and only female mayor of San Francisco, has been re-elected to the Senate every six years since 1994.Credit: Reuters

On December 4, 1978, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors named Dianne Feinstein as mayor of the city, following the November 27 murder of Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein, who at the time was president of the Board of Supervisors (the San Francisco equivalent of city council), became the first – and to date only – female mayor of the city.

The shooting of both Moscone, who had been elected in January 1976, and Supervisor Harvey Milk, was especially shocking because the crimes were carried out by a fellow member of the Board of Supervisors, Dan White. White, a politically and socially conservative white man in a city with a liberal mayor and a growing gay population, had clashed with both the mayor and with Milk, a longtime and charismatic (and Jewish) gay activist. Frustrated with the job and with his inability to support his family on his salary, White resigned from the board on November 10, 1978, before changing his mind four days later. When Moscone refused to allow him to rescind his resignation, White smuggled a loaded revolver into City Hall and shot and killed first Moscone, then Milk. Feinstein heard the shootings, and it was she who discovered Harvey Milk’s body, and then announced her colleagues’ death to the press.

During his trial for murder, White invoked what became known as the “Twinkie defense,” the somewhat misleading term used to describe his attorneys’ argument that the defendant was depressed and not responsible for his actions at the time of the killings. Evidence of his diminished state included the fact that White, who was known as an eater of health food, had been consuming sweetened soft drinks and Twinkie cakes in the days before the attacks. The jury bought the defense, and White was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. He killed himself after his release, in 1985.

Feinstein, born in 1933, was first elected to the Board of Supervisors in 1970. She had grown up in San Francisco, the daughter of a prominent surgeon, Leon Goldman, and a former model, the former Betty Rosenburg, who despite her name was of Russian Orthodox background. Feinstein graduated from a Catholic high school, but she considers herself Jewish. She became involved in campus politics at Stanford University (during her college years, she modeled clothes for her uncle, Morris Goldman, a clothing manufacturer who also introduced her to liberal politics), from which she graduated in 1955. An acquaintance with Governor Pat Brown led to her appointment in 1960 to the California Women’s Board of Terms and Parole.

Feinstein’s first marriage ended in divorce, leaving her to raise a 2-year-old daughter. Her second marriage ended with the death of her husband, Bertram Feinstein, and since 1980, she has been married to investment banker Richard C. Blum. She is estimated by CBS News to be the seventh wealthiest U.S. senator, with personal assets of some $77 million.

Feinstein was first elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, and made her first run for mayor in 1971, followed by a second unsuccessful attempt four years later. As Board of Supervisors president in November 1978, she became acting mayor immediately, and a week later was chosen by the board to serve out the remaining year in Moscone’s term. The following year, she ran for and was elected to a full term in her own right, and she was re-elected in 1983. She lost a bid for California governor to Pete Wilson in 1990, but a year after Wilson entered office, she took over his unexpired term in the U.S. Senate.

Considered a moderate liberal with an independent streak, Feinstein has been re-elected every six years since 1994, most recently last month, winning nearly two-thirds of the vote. She chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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