Who Replaces Feinstein?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom says he won’t appoint anyone running for her seat in 2024.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom listens to New College students at Betty J. Johnson North Saraota Public Library in Sarasota on Monday, April 3, 2023. Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Press Wire

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom has a tough decision to make: who he’ll appoint to temporarily replace the Senate vacancy created by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who served in the upper chamber for more than three decades and wielded enormous influence over firearms policy, judicial selections, and more until her death Thursday.

Three Democratic members of Congress from the state have already announced their bids to replace Feinstein in 2024: Rep. Barbara Lee, a liberal who has served in Congress since 1998; Katie Porter, a rising star in the progressive coalition who was first elected in 2018; and Adam Schiff, who rose in prominence managing former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, and as a member of the committee investigating the January 6 Capitol insurrection.

But Newsom is unlikely to pick any of the three for the interim. Earlier this month, the governor said he didn’t want to give anyone an advantage in next year’s primary should Feinstein be unable to finish her term. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off, he said on NBC’s Meet the Press as Feinstein publicly battled health issues. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

His decision is complicated by a 2021 promise to name a Black woman to replace Feinstein should she leave the Senate early. That promise came after he appointed Alex Padilla to fill the vacancy left by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was the only Black woman in the Senate.

Lee, who is Black, was incensed by Newsom’s comments. “I am troubled by the governor’s remarks,” Lee said in a statement. “The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election.”

“The perspective of Black women in the U.S. Senate is sorely needed—and needed for more than a few months. Governor Newsom knows this, which is why he made the pledge in the first place,” Lee continued. “If the Governor intends to keep his promise and appoint a Black woman to the Senate, the people of California deserve the best possible person for that job. Not a token appointment.”

According to recent figures from the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, Lee is polling at 7 percent for the March primary, behind Porter’s 17 percent and Schiff’s 20 percent. 

There are several other Black women currently serving in key political positions across the state, but to fill the vacancy, many would have to give up hard-fought positions or would lose footing on others for which they’re vying.

The office of former House Rep. Karen Bass, now mayor of Los Angeles, has said she isn’t interested in being a temporary Senator, according to the Washington Post. Bass only recently won office in the city after a very expensive campaign against billionaire Rick Caruso.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Mayor London Breed is running for re-election in what some local experts say will be a competitive race; Breed has endorsed Lee for the 2024 Senate primary. 

Lateefah Simon, a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Transit Board, could be another candidate, but the appointment would complicate her campaign to replace Lee in representing California’s 12th District. California Secretary of State Shirley Weber would have to give up her job, which could run through 2030 if she is re-elected.

While Newsom weighs his options, the Democrats’ narrow 51-49 Senate majority is down to 50.

Newsom “wants to be respectful and not name somebody while folks are still grappling with their grief,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), according to a recent Politico report. Nevertheless, Kaine said, “We cannot afford to be one down. We really can’t.”

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