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Friends of both senators — Feinstein of California and Wyden of Oregon — say their strikingly opposed positions result both from their independent spirit, but also from strong beliefs forged by pre-congressional experiences.
In 1978, Feinstein was president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors when a gunman entered City Hall and shot to death Harvey Milk, a fellow supervisor and gay activist, along with the city’s mayor, George Moscone. Feinstein announced the killings at a news conference and then succeeded Moscone as mayor.
Colleagues say the murders were formative for Feinstein, who was outraged that the killer, Dan White, claimed he was depressed and was convicted only of manslaughter. The incident continued to inform her positions after her election to the Senate in 1992, most prominently in the lead she has taken on gun control advocacy since the massacre of 26 people at a school in Connecticut last year.
“Dianne has always been pretty much a centrist on these issues, law enforcement, security,” said Mel Levine, a former Democratic Congressman from southern California.
Wyden, the child of German Holocaust survivors, entered public service through his activism as a young professor of gerontology concerned about insurance scams targeting seniors.
“The victims of these scams — seniors who had lived through two world wars — would look at me with shame in their eyes and tell me that they should have known better,” he wrote on the Huffington Post last year. “Stopping those insurance rip-offs was one of the reasons I ran for Congress.”
Wyden founded the Oregon chapter of the Gray Panthers, a social justice group focused on the rights of older Americans, in the 1970s. In 1980, he was elected to the House, and then to the Senate in 1996.
“He’s always been very much an independent thinker,” said Bob Horenstein, the director of the Portland, Ore. Jewish Community Relations Council. “He’ll find allies where he needs to find allies, and if he has to oppose a colleague, he’ll do that.”
Wyden and Feinstein both have reputations for walking away from their parties — and their natural constituencies — on principle.