Newsom faces push to name Black woman to Senate if Feinstein retires
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Gavin Newsom provoked fury when he didn’t appoint a Black woman to fill the Senate seat held by Kamala Harris — opting to choose longtime friend Alex Padilla instead.
Now, two years later, he’s facing similar pressure as the state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, recovers at her San Francisco home from shingles and could be forced to step down early if her health worsens.
Black political leaders are making it clear they remember the governor’s public pledge to appoint a Black woman to the Senate if Feinstein resigned — and are floating names that include Rep. Barbara Lee, who is already running for the seat.
“There is no Black woman in the Senate, so that commitment was heard across the nation,” said Assemblymember Lori Wilson, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “There are Black women in Texas, in Georgia, who are holding onto: If there’s a vacancy, we’re going to get a Black woman, because Governor Newsom said so.”
A Senate vacancy in California would create outsize implications for the 2024 Senate race and a series of fraught political choices for Newsom. The governor would face enormous pressure to move quickly on his decision, given Democrats’ razor-thin margin in the Senate. He’d also have to decide whether to appoint a caretaker or wade into the contest by naming a contender like Lee.
Feinstein, who plans to retire after next year, said Wednesday she will return to the Senate as soon as her medical team allows — though she didn’t specify a date. In the meantime, she called for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to pick a Democrat to replace her on the important Judiciary Committee.
Newsom has made no public statements on the politically thorny issue in recent days, as some lawmakers openly called for Feinstein’s resignation. When asked if he intends to honor his promise, a spokesperson for his office directed POLITICO to his previous comments.
The governor in 2021 said he had “multiple names” in mind for Feinstein’s replacement, though didn’t specify any. Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and San Francisco Mayor London Breed have all been floated as potential contenders — though representatives for at least two said they would not accept the nomination.
But Lee, one of the most prominent Black women in California politics, seems to be garnering the most support for the appointment. She is running against fellow congressmembers and formidable fundraisers Katie Porter and Adam Schiff in the fierce competition to replace Feinstein in 2024 — a race that is already creating tension within the California Democratic establishment.
In 2020, San Francisco-based She The People helped organize a pressure campaign to fill Harris’ seat with a Black woman. Last time around, the goal was to uplift both Lee in Northern California and then-Congresswoman Bass in Southern California.
But with Bass now installed as Los Angeles mayor, Lee is the most senior among the contenders to replace Feinstein, said the group’s founder, Aimee Allison. It’s widely expected that the statewide political establishment “will break in favor of Barbara Lee,” she said.
Wilson noted that the California Legislative Black Caucus has already endorsed Lee’s bid for Senate, and said she would like to see the congresswoman appointed in the event Feinstein stepped down.
A representative for Lee’s campaign declined to comment on the prospect of a direct appointment. “The congresswoman’s primary concern is for Sen. Feinstein’s health,” said Lee campaign spokesperson Katie Merrill in a statement. “She is wishing the Senator a full and speedy recovery.”
Appointing someone outside the 2024 Senate contest, such as Weber, could give Newsom an out — allowing him to avoid any show of favoritism between Lee, Porter and Schiff. But there’s no guarantee that such an appointee wouldn’t change their mind and run in 2024.
And it might not be Newsom’s preference, anyway.
“Appointing a caretaker may be the way out of a difficult political situation,” said Rose Kapolczynski, a longtime Democratic consultant known for running former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s campaigns. “But [Newsom’s] history shows that he’s happy to take a risk and appoint someone who’s going to serve and run.”
Adding to the pressure is the fact that Newsom did not not endorse Bass for mayor last year even as nearly every high-powered Democrat, including President Joe Biden, rallied behind her — a political decision that earned him some harsh criticism. In a letter sent ahead of the November election, a coalition of Black women’s groups accused the governor of turning his back on them.
“He selectively supports Black women candidates even when they have overwhelming support from the party leaders and our community,” the letter read.
Newsom has so far not moved off his position to appoint a Black woman to the Senate should it become a possibility.
When asked if Weber would consider the job, Matt Herdman, a spokesperson for her campaign, said, “no comment.”
Bass’ spokesperson Zach Seidl, when asked the same question, responded, “absolutely not.”
Lenée Richards, a spokesperson for Mitchell, said “she would not accept an appointment to the Senate.”
Breed’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Roger Salazar, a veteran California Democratic consultant who has advised statewide and national campaigns, said Newsom could certainly risk alienating Schiff and Porter supporters if he appointed Lee to a vacancy.
But regardless of who he has in mind, Newsom would be expected to make a decision quickly — if it came to that. After Harris vacated her seat, it took Newsom several months to name a successor. Now, given the tight margin for Democrats in the Senate and the ongoing debates around gun control, abortion and the economy, he would not have the same luxury of time.
“There’s no question that there’s going to be an urgency because of the national situation,” Salazar said.
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