Amid questions about the health of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) outlined a plan to appoint a caretaker to fill her seat if she leaves office before her term ends — a notion that one of the candidates running to succeed Feinstein promptly blasted as “insulting to countless Black women.”
The assessment from Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only prominent Black candidate in the 2024 Senate race, came hours after Newsom appeared Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he renewed a pledge to fill any Senate vacancy with a Black woman — but said it wouldn’t be Lee.
Newsom emphasized that it’s up to Feinstein, 90, to decide whether to vacate the Senate seat before the end of her term in early 2025. Newsom said he knows that Feinstein’s staff is “still extraordinarily active” and that the office can still fulfill its duties, but he appeared to agree with host Chuck Todd, who said the situation is “sad to watch.”
Feinstein has struggled with a number of health issues in recent years, including shingles, and is facing scrutiny over her mental acuity. She has also been embroiled in a legal battle over her late husband’s estate. One lawsuit filed last month over the estate claims that Feinstein is the victim of financial elder abuse. Feinstein’s daughter, Katherine Feinstein, was granted limited durable power of attorney in the case.
“I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment,” Newsom said. “I’ve made plenty of appointments.”
Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, called on Newsom to tap Lee.
“The CBC stands with many others when we declare that Rep. Barbara Lee remains the most eminently qualified to serve in this role should an opportunity to appoint someone come to the Governor’s desk,” Horsford said in a statement. “His commitment to appoint the best-qualified Black woman in California to serve in the U.S. Senate shouldn’t be to a temporary placeholder, but instead, someone who can immediately get to work.”
Appointing Lee to Feinstein’s seat could give Lee a boost in the Senate race, in which polls have shown her trailing Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, two Democrats also representing California in the U.S. House. But Newsom made clear that’s not in the cards.
“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats [who] have worked their tails off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Lee joined the Senate race in February and has often emphasized the importance of electing a Black female senator to a chamber that has had none since Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) resigned in 2021 to become vice president.
Lee said she was “troubled” by Newsom’s recent comments.
“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, who represents a Bay Area district, said in a statement.
“There are currently no Black women serving in the Senate,” she added. “Since 1789, there have only been two Black woman Senators, who have served a total of 10 years. The perspective of Black women in the U.S. Senate is sorely needed — and needed for more than a few months. Governor Newsom knows this, which is why he made the pledge in the first place.”
Anthony York, a senior adviser to Newsom, pushed back on Lee’s reaction to the governor, calling the appointment of a replacement for Feinstein “a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical.”
“There is no vacancy for any U.S. Senate seat, nor does the Governor anticipate there will be one,” York said in a statement. “Voters will have their say on who should replace Senator Feinstein when they go to the polls less than 6 months from now.”
California’s Democratic Senate primary — one of the most closely watched races this election cycle — is six months away. While Lee has snagged the potentially influential endorsement of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), former House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) endorsed Schiff in February.
Newsom committed to naming a Black woman to fill Feinstein’s seat, should she resign, in 2021. The governor faced pressure to nominate a Black woman to replace Harris. Lee was one of the people considered at the time, but Newsom ultimately chose Alex Padilla, then California’s secretary of state. Padilla was later elected to a full Senate term.
Marisa Iati contributed to this report.