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Gavin Newsom Made Filling Dianne Feinstein’s Seat Even Harder

Senator Dianne Feinstein welcomes then-mayor of San Francisco Gavin Newsom to Washington, D.C., in 2003. Photo: Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein

The death of trailblazing senator Dianne Feinstein on Thursday at the age of 90 comes at a particularly sensitive time. Though Feinstein announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection in 2024, her age and ill health had made the possibility of her vacating her seat even earlier a subject of constant speculation. A red-hot contest to replace her is already underway in California, but there is more than a year left in her term and the nonpartisan primary to choose her successor won’t take place until March 5. That puts Governor Gavin Newsom in the awkward position of finding a Black woman to fill the vacancy, as he promised to do in 2021, while not predetermining the 2024 contest.

Newsom has already appointed one of California’s senators, naming Alex Padilla to fill now-Vice-President Kamala Harris’s seat in 2021 (Padilla was elected to a full term the following year). After replacing the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate with Padilla, who is Latino, Newsom publicly promised to name a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat if she resigned. When Feinstein announced she would not seek a separate term, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, one of the most prominent Black women in California Democratic politics, jumped into the Senate race. Lee is now trailing her U.S. House colleagues Adam Schiff and Katie Porter in both support and fundraising, so being appointed to the now-vacated seat would provide her campaign with a much-needed boost.

But Newsom apparently fears putting a thumb on the scales for the upcoming Senate election. Earlier this month on Meet the Press, Newsom bit the bullet and announced that he would appoint a caretaker to Feinstein’s seat if it became open.

“Interim appointment. I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

This angered Barbara Lee, who described Newsom’s decision as “insulting to countless Black women” presumably deemed unqualified to serve as anything other than a caretaker. Lee’s position, and her support from many other Black political activists and elected officials in the state, could discourage other prospects for a Newsom appointment to step forward, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported:

Many of the top Black women politicians in California have said they are not interested in moving to the Senate to be a caretaker. Lee and California Secretary of State Shirley Weber have each in the past declined to comment if they would consider the appointment. Spokespeople for Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell have said they would not take the job. San Francisco Mayor London Breed is supporting Lee’s campaign.

Lee also enjoys strong support for her senatorial ambitions from the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington.

One possible way out of a potentially fractious situation would be for Lee to accept the appointment herself in exchange for withdrawing her candidacy for a full term (which according to the polls, isn’t going particularly well). At the age of 76, retirement probably isn’t too far off for her. And such a solution would be a boon not only for Schiff and Porter but would also enhance the odds of an all-Democratic general election. Right now the three major Democratic candidacies give Republicans a chance to win a general-election spot in California’s top-two primary system if they can get behind a single candidate (possibly former baseball star Steve Garvey). But Lee becoming a “caretaker” would not easily comport with her harsh comments about the role after Newsom’s Meet the Press interview.

In any event, the troubles Democrats have had in maintaining a majority on key Senate measures like judicial confirmations during Feinstein’s frequent health-related absences will be mitigated once Newsom has made his appointment. More generally, there’s virtually no chance Democrats will lose this seat in 2024 given the state’s partisan complexion and the strong turnout usually generated by a presidential election at the top of the ballot. Continuation of Feinstein’s legacy as one of the Senate’s (and California’s) leading Democratic centrists will depend on who wins the seat in 2024; Schiff is viewed as less rigorously progressive than Porter or Lee, though he truly is hated by Republicans.

The one thing we know for sure is that once the many tributes to Feinstein have concluded and her seat has been filled both temporarily and for another six years, Gavin Newsom will be happy to put the transitional saga behind him for good.

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Newsom Made Filling Dianne Feinstein’s Seat Even Harder