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Veteran US Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein dies aged 90

US SENATOR DIANNE Feinstein of California, a centrist Democrat who was elected to the senate in 1992 in the “Year of the Woman” and broke gender barriers throughout her long career in local and national politics, has died aged 90.

Feinstein, the oldest sitting US senator, was a passionate advocate for liberal priorities important to her state – including environmental protection, reproductive rights and gun control – but was also known as a pragmatic legislator who reached out to Republicans and sought the middle ground.

She was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969 and became its first female president in 1978, the same year mayor George Moscone was gunned down alongside supervisor Harvey Milk at City Hall by Dan White, a disgruntled former supervisor.

Feinstein found Milk’s body.

After Moscone’s death, Feinstein became San Francisco’s first female mayor. In the US senate, she was one of California’s first two female senators, the first woman to head the Senate Intelligence Committee and the first woman to serve as the judiciary committee’s top Democrat.

Although Feinstein was not always embraced by the feminist movement, her experiences coloured her outlook through her five decades in politics.

She said in 2005: “I recognise that women have had to fight for everything they have gotten, every right.

“So I must tell you, I try to look out for women’s rights. I also try to solve problems as I perceive them, with legislation, and reaching out where I can, and working across the aisle.”

Her tendency for bipartisanship helped her notch legislative wins throughout her career. But it also proved to be a liability in her later years in congress, as her state became more liberal and as the senate and the electorate became increasingly polarised.

A fierce debater who did not suffer fools, the California senator was long known for her verbal zingers and sharp comebacks when challenged on the issues about which she was most fervent.

But she lost that edge in her later years in the senate, as her health visibly declined and she often became confused when answering questions or speaking publicly.

In February 2023, she said she would not run for a sixth term the next year. And within weeks of that announcement, she was absent for the senate for more than two months as she recovered from a bout of shingles.

Amid the concerns about her health, Feinstein stepped down as the top Democrat on the judiciary panel after the 2020 elections, just as her party was about to take the majority.

In 2023, she said she would not serve as the senate president pro tempore, or the most senior member of the majority party, even though she was in line to do so. The president pro tempore opens the Senate every day and holds other ceremonial duties.

One of Feinstein’s most significant legislative accomplishments was early in her career, when the US senate approved her amendment to ban manufacturing and sales of certain types of assault weapons as part of a crime bill that then-president Bill Clinton signed into law in 1994.

Though the assault weapons ban expired 10 years later and was never renewed or replaced, it was a poignant win after her career had been significantly shaped by gun violence.