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With the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will Newsom appoint?

With the death of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who will Newsom appoint?
Photo: X @DianneFeinstein

By Alexei Koseff. CalMatters.

With the death of the senator Dianne Feinstein of California, it was announced Friday that there are still no plans, confusing politics in both his home state and Washington, DC.

With more than a year left in Feinstein's term, Gov. Gavin Newsom He must now name a replacement, a possibility he dismissed just weeks ago as hypothetical, and a tense prospect as a race to succeed Feinstein has already been underway for months.

A spokesman for the governor said Friday morning that his office did not yet have information on Newsom's plans or a timeline for his selection. In a statement, he praised Feinstein, a fellow Democrat, as “a leader in times of tragedy and chaos.”

“She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace,” Newsom said. “She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her faith in the spirit of political cooperation.”

This will be Newsom's second appointment to the United States Senate. In December 2020, he tapped his former ally Alex Padilla to be California's first Latino senator after then-Senator Kamala Harris was elected vice president. Padilla won a full six-year term last year.

The decision angered some activists, who noted that Newsom's election had left the Senate once again without a Black woman. Months later, he pledged on MSNBC to appoint an African-American woman to Feinstein's seat if she didn't finish her term.

That promise came back to haunt Newsom this year when Feinstein's health problems came to light, including a bout with shingles that forced her to retire from the Senate for several months in the spring. Rampant speculation about an appointment has followed Newsom, especially in interviews with national media outlets.

Earlier this month, the governor told NBC's “Meet the Press” that he would select an interim senator if necessary because he did not “want to get involved in the primary,” even as he remained committed to electing an African-American woman.

Her response infuriated Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat who is running for Feinstein's seat and who trails Reps. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, and Katie Porter, an Irvine Democrat, in public polls on the March primaries. Her allies have positioned Lee as a natural choice for a vacancy because the longtime congresswoman is one of California's most prominent African-American politicians.

Lee sharply criticized Newsom, calling his tentative plan “insulting to countless Black women.” A spokesperson for the governor responded that he was talking about “a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical.” As a result, two of Newsom's longtime political advisers left a super PAC working to elect Lee.

That hypothesis is now real.

Lee praised Feinstein in an online statement as “a champion of our state” and “the voice of a political revolution for women,” but did not address the issue of her replacement. Other Black women who could be considered for the position have also remained resolutely silent until now.

After elevating Padilla to the Senate, Newsom nominated Shirley Weber to succeed him as California Secretary of State, making her the highest-ranking African American woman in state politics. His spokesman declined to comment on whether he would consider the interim appointment if requested, calling it “speculative.”

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who leads California's largest city, said on CNN this summer that Newsom should fill a vacancy with Lee. His office did not immediately respond to a message.

 London Breed, the mayor of San Francisco, Feinstein's hometown, who initially called Padilla's appointment “a real blow to the African-American community,” also supports Lee. At a news conference after Feinstein's death, Breed said the immediate focus should be the senator's legacy and that the conversation about her replacement "could be saved for another day."

Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, is another longtime member of Congress. His office did not immediately respond to a message.

Feinstein's death brings intense pressure not only to Newsom, but also to Senate Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the chamber.

Feinstein held a seat on the judiciary committee, which approves judicial nominations. Many Democrats, including Newsom himself, now fear that Republicans will block a replacement, stalling the committee and preventing President Biden from appointing more judges in his first term. Politico reports that Senate Republicans have signaled they will allow the vacancy to be filled.

Bipartisan tributes poured in from California and Washington for Feinstein, a more moderate Democrat who nonetheless led gun control and a CIA torture investigation during her tenure in the Senate. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, flew the Capitol flags at half-staff in his honor.

“Dianne left her mark on everything from national security to the environment to the protection of civil liberties,” Biden said in a statement. “She has made history in many ways and our country will benefit from her legacy for generations.”


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