Memories of a Mentor

Dianne Feinstein’s staffers and interns on leadership, loyalty, and service.

December 2023

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Diane Feinstein

ELECTED AND ELATED: Feinstein was appointed mayor after Moscone’s death, then won a second term. Photo: Nick Allen/Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Dianne Feinstein, ’55, was well known as the San Francisco mayor who helped the city find its way forward after the 1978 City Hall assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, and later as one of the first pair of women to represent California in the Senate. She also had a less visible identity: mentor to generations of Stanford students who served as interns and staffers in her office. Several of them share their memories of the senator, who died September 29.

Feinstein was quick to make the Stanford connection.

Sebastian Alarcon

Sebastian Alarcon, ’18, intern 2017, staffer 2018–2021, now a JD candidate at Stanford Law School: I remember when I introduced myself on the first day, she was like, “Oh, you’re a Stanford graduate,” and asked everyone who had any connection with Stanford to raise their hands. Then she said reluctantly, “OK, if you have a connection to Cal, you can also raise your hand.”

Suraj Patel

Suraj Patel, ’05, intern 2004, now an attorney and lecturer at New York University: I know how much of a bleed-Cardinal-red person Senator Feinstein was. She would wax poetic about her time there. 

Many remember Feinstein’s example as a leader, especially as a woman in predominantly male spaces.

Alarcon: She talked about beginning her political career at Stanford when she was running for student body vice president, and she discussed the [terrible] treatment she got for being a woman running on campus during that time. I think that concern animated a lot of her approach to politics and really wanting to be perfect in as many aspects as she could; she wanted to leave a good impression and she knew that it would be tougher for her to do so because of her gender, at least for a majority of her career.

Patel: Man, I mean, she was just a trailblazer. [She] not only wedged herself into the boys’ club in San Francisco and the U.S. Senate, but even within the confines of the U.S. Senate—intelligence, armed services—those things are even more boys-y. I think it was really awesome to watch that happen.

Sima Gandhi

Sima Gandhi, ’04, intern 2003, now a tech entrepreneur and regulatory expert: She was able to attract really great and loyal talent. [It was] a testament to her ability to pull together strong experts to do what was right for the country. They got a lot done. There was no drama. Her expectations were clear. That’s good leadership.

Elizabeth Bernal Cate

Elizabeth Bernal Cate, ’16, MA ’17, intern 2015, staffer 2017–2020, now a law clerk: Looking back as a young intern and a young staffer, there was always just almost like a star quality. Whenever she walked in the room, she just kind of epitomized everything that a woman in politics and a leader should be—just very intelligent, very hardworking, but also very friendly, very graceful. Just an all-around great person. 

Each of the alumni can point to an issue on which Feinstein was particularly effective during their time in her office. 

Patel: This was the spring when the Abu Ghraib [prison abuse] stuff came out. I think this one really shook her to her core as a person who was an Intelligence Committee person from day one and a supporter of law enforcement throughout her prior career. She considered her life’s most important work that 2014 torture memo. I remember being there for the genesis of that. 

Juliana Yanez

Juliana Yanez, ’09, intern 2007, now an attorney: The big issue that I recall being foremost in importance to her at the time was waterboarding. Then, as you know, she became one of those holding the CIA accountable for coercive interrogation tactics. I think she was extremely instrumental. She went on to become the chair of the Intelligence Committee, bringing to light some of the things that happened.

Michael Madderra

Michael Madderra, ’11, intern 2010, now an attorney: If something really caught your attention, you could bring it up the flagpole. I was looking into debt figures at the time of the Greek financial crisis. I basically was allowed to put together a presentation for the senator and some of the senator’s staff. It was definitely an exciting moment for a college junior.

Alarcon: I did a lot of immigration [work]. I remember very vividly how she reacted to the reports of children in cages. [It] was a very visceral reaction. That’s the reason why she led some caucuswide bills to abolish the practice of family separation.

Bryan Benitez

Bryan Benitez, ’24, intern 2023, current senior: She was always passionate about environmental issues as they related to California. That was a big thing because she would always have to find the middle ground between economic necessity of the state and environmental protections. 

In an increasingly contentious environment, Feinstein built relationships and strove to get things done.

Patel: She worked a lot across the aisle. She was very friendly with Jon Kyl, who was the chairperson on [the] Victims’ Rights Amendment, which was something she was really pushing hard on, [for] survivors of rape, abuse, violent crime, having the right to be heard. 

Alarcon: One of the things she pushed for maybe more than other senators was to have a partner in something—one possible Republican partner—because that would help make a bill pass. I think just because of her seniority and her real depth on these issues, even the Republicans listened. They knew that she demanded that respect by her aura as well as her achievements.

Cate: She epitomized what it means to serve our country. She was really tough and really sharp but always willing to work with anyone for a better future. 

In the end, alums remember Feinstein as someone who valued individuals.

Solina Kwan

Solina Kwan, ’92, intern 1992, now a quantitative economist: She was so human that she would talk about being a wife or a mom and a grandmother—she would take the time to ask questions, to listen, and to connect. When she talked about her success, it was not about an election she won. It was about the people she impacted and the difference that she made, one person at a time. 

Benitez: You see the emphasis she placed on making sure her constituents were taken care of, in whatever capacity that meant. That expedited passport—even if it’s not the most glamorous, she always made sure to emphasize that that was really important.

Alarcon: One thing that she taught me is the idea that public service is about making a difference in individuals’ lives, even when you represent millions of people. I remember one immigrant who was in a wheelchair. She would have died because Guatemala could not provide her the sort of medical care [she needed]. Senator Feinstein brought her as quickly as she could to the judiciary committee, to essentially corner another senator and be like, “Hey, please meet this person. Don’t you think she’s great? Listen to her story. Don’t you think we should do something to make sure she’s allowed to stay in the country?” The idea that she was willing to get that face time was really, really powerful and something that I don’t think a lot of senators do often. It shows how much she cared.

Read our 2017 profile of Feinstein.

Photos from top: Zoe Lee-Chiong; Courtesy Suraj Patel; Alejandro Catala Sicilia; Latham & Watkins; Barak Shrama; Michael Madderra; Kathleen Nguyen; Solina Kwan

Christine Foster is a writer in Connecticut. Email her at

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