The death of pioneering Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has put California Gov. Gavin Newsom under immediate pressure over whom he picks as her replacement, with Democrats clinging to a narrow Senate majority and Congress likely nearing crucial votes over government funding.
Newsom’s decision will attract heavy scrutiny, both on Capitol Hill and in California. The Democratic governor previously pledged to name a Black woman to the seat should Feinstein leave before the end of her term but, earlier this month, ruled out appointing any of the candidates seeking the office in next year’s election.
That group includes Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a trailblazer in her own right and the only Black woman running for Feinstein’s seat. The senator had already announced she would not be seeking reelection in 2024.
“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom told NBC News in an interview that aired on September 10. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Lee and her supporters were infuriated by Newsom’s announcement. The congresswoman said in a statement that “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.”
“If the Governor intends to keep his promise and appoint a Black woman to the Senate,” Lee added, “the people of California deserve the best possible person for that job. Not a token appointment.”
Newsom tried to deflect in the immediate aftermath, telling CNN’s Dana Bash last week that the situation was “a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical.” In that interview, he touted what he described as his “pretty good record in this space” and promised “to hold myself to account if that hypothetical on top of a hypothetical ever occurs.”
Now, though, that hypothetical has become a reality – and one the ambitious governor is being called on to reckon with speedily. The Senate appointment will be the second by Newsom, who was called on to fill Kamala Harris’s seat when she ascended to the vice presidency in 2021. His choice then, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a longtime political ally, won a full term in 2022, making him the first Latino from California elected to the US Senate.
Newsom took a little more than a month after the 2020 election before he selected Padilla. But there was no open seat to fill at the time, with Harris not formally resigning from the Senate until two days before the 2021 inauguration.