Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death cast an immediate spotlight Friday on California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is navigating a politically fraught decision with far-reaching implications both for his state and his future as he considers who to appoint as her replacement.
The Democratic governor plans to appoint a Black woman to the seat — hewing to the promise he made in 2021 after he replaced then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris with Alex Padilla, who became the state’s first Latino senator. But with no Black women in the U.S. Senate, Newsom has angered some liberal voters and activists by stating before Feinstein died that his choice will be an “interim appointment,” which was interpreted by many as naming someone as a placeholder through January 2025 when Feinstein was slated to retire.
A swift decision could help circumvent the intense lobbying effort that is already building among some on the left to convince Newsom to dispense with any reelection conditions and choose Rep. Barbara Lee, a Black woman who is running for the seat in 2024. The Oakland Democrat and her competitors, fellow Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, all declined Friday to comment on the political machinations in deference to Feinstein’s passing.
Newsom could appoint a successor within 48 to 72 hours, and perhaps sooner, according to several people with knowledge of the situation, especially as Washington grapples with a looming government shutdown. The Republican-led U.S. House failed Friday to approve a 30-day stopgap funding bill and the government will shut down Sunday at 12:01 a.m. if lawmakers do not act. The people with knowledge of the situation spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private deliberations.
Newsom’s task has been especially complex because several of the governor’s top potential candidates have been closely allied with Lee for many years and are now juggling high-profile jobs of their own. That includes newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who is viewed by many Democrats familiar with the deliberations as Newsom’s most likely choice.
Newsom’s office declined to comment Friday about the process or the candidates he is considering, as they insisted that the governor wanted to keep the focus on Feinstein’s career as a “trailblazing senator,” describing her in a statement as a “dear friend, lifelong mentor and role model of “what a powerful effective leader looks like.”
But frustration was once again rising among liberals Friday that Lee would not get consideration even though she is one of the most experienced Black female leaders in the state. Newsom said recently to NBC News that he would not choose anyone currently running because he did not want to tilt the balance in the open-seat Senate race.
Larry Cohen, the board chair of the left-leaning group Our Revolution, described the governor’s search for someone who agree to be an interim appointee as “typical Newsom — great on messaging and not on substance.”
“There’s a certain arrogance about that — that he only wants to name a lame duck,” Cohen said. “You take what, at least to me, would be the most qualified person with that criteria and you rule her out. For progressives, I would call disappointing at best.”
California Democratic consultant Steven Maviglio said everything that Newsom does “is through a political prism for his future these days and I think this won’t be any different.”
When asked about the potential backlash to passing over Lee — who was a top potential candidate for Newsom when he first made his promise — Newsom allies argued that it would be inappropriate for him to put his thumb on the scale at a time when Schiff, Porter and Lee are locked in a contentious race that will come to a head in March. In California’s all-party system, two candidates will proceed to the general election, regardless of political affiliation — potentially pitting Democratic front-runners Schiff and Porter against one another in November. Lee has been far behind Schiff and Porter in both public polling and fundraising.
The timing of the appointment is at the discretion of the governor. Under the standing rules of the Senate, once the proper credentials are presented to the secretary after the death of a senator, the governor’s appointee can be sworn in immediately as long as the chamber is in session.
Newsom’s delicate political calculus is one that he had dreaded for months as Feinstein, who was 90, grew increasingly frail as questions swirled around her ability to fulfill her duties.
An unusual string of vacancies in recent years has allowed Newsom to essentially reshape the highest echelons of power in California. After replacing Feinstein, he will have appointed two U.S. senators, the secretary of state and the attorney general — allowing one man to speak for California’s nearly 22 million voters. A misstep could anger key Democratic constituencies at a moment when he is carefully building the machinery to power a potential run for the White House after 2024.
Newsom has closely guarded his list of potential appointees to Feinstein’s seat, which has included some of California’s highest-profile Black female lawmakers as well as civic and judicial leaders who will be virtually unknown to the state’s voters. His office refused to comment on the list Friday, or the vetting process that he has undertaken, and insisted that he had not yet made his decision.
Along with Bass, Breed and Weber, other top candidates — including Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and Congresswoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove — have fielded concerns from Lee allies who believe she should not be passed over. Angela Glover Blackwell, an attorney and civil rights activist who is the founder-in-residence of the advocacy group PolicyLink, has also been mentioned as a possible pick, as well as Associate Justice Leondra R. Kruger, who serves on the Supreme Court of California. Blackwell and Kruger could not be reached for comment.
Though Mitchell is a close ally of Newsom who is viewed as a rising star within the party, Mitchell’s aides previously told The Washington Post that she is fully committed to running for reelection in 2024 and “therefore would not accept an appointment to the Senate.”
Higher Heights PAC, an organization that aims to promote Black women in politics, endorsed Lee in the primary and called on Newsom to appoint her to the open seat Friday.
“We didn’t love his comments,” April Turner, the group’s vice president of communications, said of Newsom’s vow to make an “interim appointment.” “We don’t see this as someone who would be babysitting a Senate seat, but we want the person who would be most effective at doing the job. We think that is Barbara Lee.”
Turner urged Newsom to reconsider his decision, pointing to the impending government shutdown as a case for immediately appointing an experienced legislator. “She would be most prepared to step in and carry forth the work Senator Feinstein has worked on for so many decades,” she said.
Anish Mohanty, communications director for the liberal young voter organization Gen-Z for Change, said Newsom appointing a caretaker for the seat feels “disingenuous.” Lee was the organization’s first endorsement of the cycle.
Mohanty suggested that appointing a different elected Black woman in the state to the seat would reduce representation in the offices they already hold, and that Lee is best positioned to continue Feinstein’s legacy, citing both of their work on issues like the Violence Against Women Act.
Dylan Wells and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.