The race to replace the now-late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein was already well underway before her death Thursday night at age 90.
Feinstein announced in February that she would step down at the end of her current term in early 2025, creating a wide-open Democratic primary and prompting California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to reaffirm a pledge he made in 2021 to appoint a Black woman to fill any future Senate vacancies. It’s not clear yet who that appointee might be, but Newsom is expected to move quickly, given Democrats’ slim 50-49 majority without Feinstein, who died after months of declining health.
Names of up-and-coming Black officeholders tossed out include San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass — the first Black women to lead either of their respective cities — as well as Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who replaced Alex Padilla when he became a senator. An appointment to the Senate, however, would mean giving up their current offices for a yearlong stint in Washington.
Newsom has the power to appoint someone to fulfill the remainder of a vacated term, but the 2024 election will determine who holds it through 2030. The governor has made it clear he does not intend to nominate someone who wants to hold the seat permanently, further narrowing the pool.
“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” earlier this month, regarding the possibility of Feinstein vacating the seat before the 2024 election. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats who’ve worked their tails off.”
Newsom’s comments were a blow to Rep. Barbara Lee, the only Black woman running to replace Feinstein against fellow Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, who are both better funded than Lee and beating her in the polls. When Newsom vowed in 2021 to appoint a Black woman, Lee was considered a leading choice. But that was before she decided to run in 2024.
Lee wrote on X after Newsom’s “Meet The Press” remarks that she found them troubling, given that only two women had ever served in the Senate.
“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,” Lee said.
Newsom was criticized for appointing a Latino man, Padilla, to replace then-Sen. Kamala Harris, the second Black woman to serve in the Senate, when she became vice president. That led to Newsom’s pledge to pick a Black woman next.
Although Newsom’s desire to elevate a Black woman makes it a more selective process, he isn’t bound to choose someone currently serving in office. Upon the death of Arizona Republican John McCain, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) chose ex-GOP Sen. Jon Kyl as the interim placeholder until the 2018 election. Kyl, already retired at that point, was the last Senate appointee not to seek a full term.
Lee, Porter and Schiff are competing in California’s March 5 nonpartisan primary, in which the top two vote-getters advance to the November election that’s all but guaranteed to elect another Democrat.