In 1992, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer pitched themselves to California voters as the dynamic duo, as “Thelma and Louise,” as “Cagney and Lacey.”
They were trying to persuade voters to do something no state had ever done: Elect two women to represent them in the U.S. Senate.
When they got to Washington, reporters followed them, looking for signs of discord. Boxer and Feinstein, both Democrats, derided the attention as bizarre and sexist, but they remained conscious of the preconceptions for how the nation’s first female pair of senators would work together.
“It was ridiculous,” Boxer said. “We knew there were people who were ready to say two women can’t get along. We knew we had that responsibility.”
Their different personalities — and governing styles — could have posed a problem. Instead, their contrasts were their strengths.
Feinstein, a former mayor of San Francisco, was a consensus builder willing to buck her own party at times to reach a compromise. Boxer, who served 10 years in the House before coming to the Senate, was a bit of a flamethrower, more rigidly ideological and staunchly devoted to the environment and women’s health care.
“They are fire and ice,” University of Southern California political scientist Dan Schnur said. “They’ve been almost perfect complements to each other.”
The 76-year-old Boxer is retiring in January, leaving behind a 24-year working relationship with Feinstein that was by all appearances in sync until its last days, when an argument over water policy played out in public.
Starting Jan. 3, Feinstein will have a new partner in Democrat Kamala Harris, who has a blend of Boxer’s progressive ideology and Feinstein’s pragmatism.
“It’s hard to predict how she and Feinstein will work together, but it’s reasonable to assume they will end up being an even better combination,” Schnur said.
It’s common for rivalries to develop between senators from the same state, especially if they are from the same party. But Feinstein, the moderate policy wonk, and Boxer, the progressive rabble-rouser, carved their own niches, built their own alliances and largely avoided conflict.
Feinstein, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, Judiciary Committee and Select Intelligence Committee, took the lead on spending and foreign policy issues. Boxer, the ranking Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee and a senior member of the Select Ethics Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, focused on the environment, women’s rights and consumer issues.
Those different interests allowed them to go their own ways, Feinstein recalled, but they almost always backed each other’s legislation.
They put up a united front for California, together trying to limit helicopter noise over Los Angeles neighborhoods, advance a long-stalled federal courthouse project in downtown L.A. and strengthen flood protection in the Sacramento area.
They’ve worked in tandem on infrastructure, Lake Tahoe restoration, protecting wilderness areas and preventing offshore drilling.
Their different interests and relationships allowed them to reach out to a broad swath of their Senate colleagues when petitioning for something California needed. They were so effective at cajoling their counterparts on the Golden State’s behalf that President Bill Clinton once called them a “one-two punch.”
They campaigned against automatic guns, for a desert protection bill and for disaster relief after earthquakes, fires and floods.
When they differed, such as on their votes on the Iraq War and some of the George W. Bush tax cuts (Boxer was against them; Feinstein was for them), it was quietly.
“We are friends, and we supported each other,” Feinstein said. “It just naturally happened.”