Column: Newsom could face tough task replacing Feinstein in U.S. Senate

You’d think that filling a U.S. Senate seat would be easy, even fun. But if Gov. Gavin Newsom has to find a replacement for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, it could be agonizing.

Plenty of qualified people would leap at the chance to join the world’s so-called greatest deliberative body, right?

Prestige, power, perks — a career highlight even if it were only a temporary job until someone else won the seat in the next election.

Wrong. Not in this particular case — at least for people prepared to adequately represent California in the manner it deserves as the nation’s most populous state and the globe’s fifth largest economy.

Feinstein, 89, hasn’t indicated she’ll vacate the seat before her term expires at the end of next year. But she’s being pressured to step down by some in her own party.

California’s longest serving senator has been recuperating from painful shingles for two months and has missed roughly 60 votes. They include several needed to approve President Biden’s stymied federal judgeship nominations.

Feinstein says she’s working at home in San Francisco. But she can’t vote there. And her votes are sorely needed to move Biden’s agenda in a Senate that Democrats control by only a two-vote edge.

There’s no timetable for Feinstein’s return to Washington.

Speculation about her bowing out began two years ago with reports of diminishing cognitive acuity. In February, Feinstein announced the expected: She wouldn’t run for a sixth term next year.

A race was already underway to succeed her.

The question of whether Feinstein would — and should — retire before her term expires has been a hot topic among politicos. Her replacement until the next election would be chosen by the governor. But he isn’t saying much publicly.

Newsom limited his options two years ago by promising to appoint a Black woman. There wasn’t — still isn’t — a Black female senator. The last one was California’s Kamala Harris, who left to become vice president.

Newsom could have replaced Harris with another Black woman, but instead chose a longtime ally, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla. The governor’s subsequent promise was an effort to appease disappointed Black women, an important Democratic constituency.

It now would be politically untenable for Newsom to go back on his word, especially if he has national ambitions. Black politicians and voters may be relatively small in numbers, but they punch above their weight. Ask Biden which voting bloc rescued his presidential campaign in the 2020 primaries.

The most obvious choice for Newsom would be Rep. Barbara Lee, 76, of Oakland, who has 25 years of congressional experience. She’s a bit more liberal than Newsom and most Californians, but that wouldn’t be her main problem for the governor.

Lee is one of three major candidates in the 2024 Senate race. Her crowning with the title “senator” could be a significant campaign benefit. Newsom might consider it unfair to the two front-runners — Reps. Adam B. Schiff, 62, of Burbank and Katie Porter, 49, of Irvine — to give Lee a boost.

“What’s wrong with that? He’s committed or not committed” to gaining a Black female senator, says Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, an activist group that pushes for electing more women of color.

Allison supports Lee.

If Newsom passed up Lee and chose another Black woman who then ran for the office, it would conversely hurt Lee’s campaign. With two Black women competing, both their core bases would be divided. That risks angering Lee’s supporters, including Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass.

There’s also another reality: A new 2024 Senate candidate would begin her campaign far behind in organizing and fundraising, making a Newsom appointment less attractive than normal for an ambitious politician.

The primary election will be held earlier than usual, on March 5. It’s already late in the game for a new entry with low statewide name identification.

So, Newsom might want to appoint a “caretaker” senator, a Black woman who would finish Feinstein’s term but agree to not run for election.

But, as I’ve written, that wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of the governor’s pledge. He seemed to be promising to anoint a Black woman as a full-fledged senator, not a temp.

Anyway, it might be difficult to recruit an experienced legislator of the quality California deserves who would be willing to give up her current seat to become a short-timer.

Former Rep. Bass, 69, would be a terrific senator, but no way would she step down as L.A. mayor. Anyway, that would risk political suicide just after voters elected her.

L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, 58, a former influential state legislator, has senatorial qualities. But Mitchell has said she’s not interested, either as a full-timer or a temp. She’s running for reelection next year.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 48, hasn’t said much, but it wouldn’t make sense for her to step down as leader of a beautiful — if challenged — city to become a temporary senator. She’s also running for reelection.

Besides Lee, there are two other Black female House members from California, both Angelenos: 17-term Rep. Maxine Waters, 84, an outspoken liberal, and newly elected Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, 50. I can’t see either giving up her seat.

There’s a relatively painless solution to the seat-surrender dilemma. The governor could appoint either California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, 74, or newly elected Controller Malia Cohen, 45, as a caretaker senator and temporarily place a bureaucrat in her basically ministerial job. Then after next year’s election, he could return Weber or Cohen to her state post.

Or he could reach far afield for a non-politician caretaker — like Oprah Winfrey of Montecito.

That would be fun.

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