April 19, 2024
Her influence on staffers is less known than her political achievements on gun safety, water and exposing CIA torture.

I cut my teeth in politics as an aide for former U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It was a master class in politics that serves me to this day.

I had a front-row seat to history. The war in Iraq. Protecting the California desert. The March for Women’s Lives. Supreme Court nominations. The recall of California Gov. Gray Davis and the resulting election of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The day began every morning with a call from the senator on her way to the office. “Hi, it’s Dianne,” she would say, and then it was straight to business. No niceties. No small talk.

It was the time she used to get her house in order. We would go through the Senate floor agenda, her calendar and her call list.

She would speak with her chief of staff. Many days she spoke to her “field marshal,” Roz Wyman, her eyes and ears in the state. When Feinstein walked through the office each morning, we’d hit the ground running. There was never a dull moment.

Feinstein, who died last week at age 90, was a force to be reckoned with — for staff, for those lobbying her, for her Senate colleagues. As former press office staffer Colleen Haggerty recently put it, “You could sense when she approached. People stood straighter, tidied things up, and like the wave at a baseball game, there was a tide of eyes widening and shoulders pulling back exuding excitement.”

As 20-somethings beginning our careers, we had no idea working in her office would have such an impact. It taught young women how to be leaders — that we needed to be more prepared than the men; that we needed to do our homework, or as she liked to say, “earn our spurs.”

Some people say that Feinstein was tough on staff, but from my perspective, she was just a badass boss. She owned each and every room she walked into. I witnessed how people respected her organization, her drive and her leadership.

Every day, she met with Californians seeking her help. She met with staff developing and advancing her legislative agenda. She talked to presidents and prime ministers from around the globe. Through it all, she would ask the same questions: What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? How much does it cost? Can we get support from the White House and other senators?

In doing so, she was molding us.

“She liked it when women stood up for themselves. She never handed out favors,” former legislative staffer Natalie Alpert shared with me. “She always expected us to rise up and excel without help, like she did. And she always appreciated the smart, sometimes sassy women who wouldn’t back down when she challenged their assumptions.”

It was trial by fire, but those who passed came out the other side transformed.

Yes, her landmark political achievements included the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the Lake Tahoe Restoration Act and taking on the CIA to hold them accountable for torture.

Her lasting accomplishments, though, also lie in the work that didn’t grab as many headlines. She put an enormous amount of time into solving California water issues, protecting the state’s environmental resources and standing up for women’s freedoms.

One example: She authored federal legislation to create and sustain the Breast Cancer Research Stamp, the very first U.S. Postal Service fundraising stamp in history. To date, the stamp has been sold over 1.1 billion times and raised over $96 million.

Feinstein instilled a culture of caring, connection and respect. Every letter sent to the office received a response. Virtually every meeting requested was granted. And she read weekly reports from every single staffer describing who they met with, what the ask was and what our office could do to help.

Indeed, Feinstein blazed a trail. She listened, she cared and she showed up with grit and grace and courage.

She taught me that I can do hard things, and that when I fail, I need to pick myself back up and try again. She showed me how to to get things done and to take both my wins and my losses in stride.

I am forever indebted to Dianne, and I miss her greatly.

Alexis Podesta is the principal of Podesta Company. She previously served as secretary of the California Business, Consumer Services and Housing Agency under Govs. Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, and was U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s scheduler for five years. She wrote this commentary for CalMatters.

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