San Francisco Leaders — With 1 Notable Absence — Celebrate City's 150
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Civic leaders came together Wednesday morning at the Powell Street cable car turnaround to celebrate 150 years since the iconic trolleys first made their appearance, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the woman credited with saving the cable cars from extinction when she was mayor, was a no-show.
As of this week, her staff said the 90-year-old senator would be making a rare public appearance since health complications severely limited her ability to do the job of a U.S. Senator, but at last minute her appearance was canceled.
“She was not feeling well and has a cough,” said the senator’s spokesperson Ron Eckstein. “She felt it was best to stay home.”
But that didn’t stop Mayor London Breed and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi from giving Feinstein her due.
“This system in the late 1970s needed a complete overhaul. We needed to make sure it continued to run and it was safe,” said Breed. “So she (Feinstein) raised money [and] brought in the private sector to allow for an opportunity to make investments in the cable car to maintain and keep the system running.”
In fact, Breed noted there were several women, including Feinstein, who kept the cable cars part of city history over the years. She acknowledged the role of Friedel Klussman, who in 1947 led a civic coalition to keep the cable cars when some wanted them scrapped for something more modern.
Mayor Breed also mentioned the late author Maya Angelou, who briefly worked as a conductor during World War Two, and Fannie Mae Barnes, who became the first female grip person on a cable car in 1998.
“It was women who stepped up to make sure that this amazing cable car continued to be a part of the fabric of San Francisco for 150 years,” said Breed.
As mayor in the early 1980’s, Feinstein led the city’s campaign to save the cable cars, which were old, breaking down and in danger of extinction before the mayor made it a cause célèbre to renovate them. She also guided San Francisco out of its dark days after the Jonestown Massacre and the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Feinstein, frail and bound to a wheelchair, is still recovering from a debilitating bout of shingles that forced her to leave Washington D.C. in February for months, and a widely reported decline in her cognitive abilities that has prompted aides to protect her from inquisitive reporters.
Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi underscored Feinstein’s role in preventing the cable cars that inspired Tony Bennett’s song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” from falling into extinction.
The ardent Democrat used to joke with then-Mayor Feinstein about the cable cars.
“Sometimes we’d have our moments together because she’d be praising some Republicans in Congress who had helped with the cable cars,” said Pelosi. “And I’d be like, ‘Why are you praising them — the Republicans? We’re trying to defeat them.’ But she was always about San Francisco and she was always about the cable cars.”
Perhaps no single thing is more emblematic of San Francisco’s image and international allure than the city’s cable cars, and when a rash of accidents in 1979 forced a reevaluation of the system’s safety and efficiency, the price to fix it came in at $60 million. By today’s dollars, that’s not much — consider the recent infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden contained $1.2 trillion — but back then, it required a civic campaign to find the money.
Feinstein personally took charge of the effort, convincing Ken Derr, then CEO of Chevron USA (which was then headquartered in San Francisco) to raise the bucks.
The mayor even fast-tracked the effort, making sure the tourist-friendly cable cars were back on track in time for the Democratic Convention, which the city hosted in July of 1984.
Feinstein’s image of a fiscally-minded, can-do executive who put the city back together after tragedy, landed her on the cover of Time Magazine as a leading candidate to be Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale’s running mate. Alas, the other woman pictured, New York Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, was his pick.
Decades later, now 90 years old, Feinstein is essentially hanging onto office until a new Senator is elected next November to take her place.