The awkwardness continues for Governor Gavin Newsom around the hypothetical second appointment he could conceivably have to make to the U.S. Senate, as questions about Dianne Feinstein's health remain. And after pledging two years ago to appoint a Black woman to Feinstein's seat, should it come to that, Newsom faces a difficult choice.
It's very possible that Feinstein, stalwart and stubborn as she is, will do as she says and finish out her full term, which will end in January 2025. But in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" host Chuck Todd, in which Newsom also had to insist yet again that he will never be a spoiler for Biden, Newsom was asked again whether he will make good on his pledge — which came after he faced pressure to replace Kamala Harris, then the only Black woman in the Senate and one of only two in Senate history, with another Black woman, and he chose Alex Padilla instead.
"I don’t want to make another [Senate] appointment and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment," Newsom said. He added, "It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away, I don’t want to tip the balance of that."
Newsom said that, if and when Feinstein were to decide to retire a few months shy of her term's end, it would be an "interim appointment" of someone who would be just a "caretaker" of the seat — and would pledge not to run against the existing field of candidates in 2024.
"We hope we never have to make this decision. But I abide by what I’ve said very publicly on a consistent basis," Newsom said.
This has rankled Rep. Barbara Lee and others, because, obviously, Lee would fit the bill of a qualified candidate who is Black — and being an incumbent in the race would give her a huge leg up over the other main candidates in the race who are currently polling better than she is, Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter.
But because she is actively campaigning, Newsom's statement also all but guarantees his choice for the seat would not be Lee.
Below is Lee's full statement, which she put out on Sunday:
I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks. 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. There are currently no Black women serving in the Senate. 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. If the Governor intends to keep his promise and appoint a Black woman to the Senate, the people of California deserve the best possible person for that job. Not a token appointment. Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.
According to a recent poll by UC Berkeley's Institute of Governmental Studies, a majority of Californians would prefer that Newsom leave the Senate seat up to voters and just make a "caretaker" appointment if he has to.
But many see Newsom's hedging as reneging on a promise to make up for the lack of representation by Black women in the Senate chamber, after he chose his longtime friend and ally Padilla in 2021.
"The notion of a caretaker is not what was promised nor is it expected to be acceptable," says Kellie Todd Griffin, head of the California Black Women’s Collective, in a statement to the Chronicle.
Ever since making his pledge two years ago to appoint a Black woman to the seat, Newsom has had this awkward choice looming over him — and given that his and Lee's politics have rarely aligned, it's always been a question who he'd even choose.
His office deflected when asked to comment on Lee's statement, with Newsom's Senior Advisor for Communications & Strategy Anthony York telling KTVU, "[It's] 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. Voters will have their say on who should replace Senator Feinstein when they go to the polls less than 6 months from now."
That Berkeley IGS poll found that Schiff currently has around 20% of the vote, with Porter pulling in 17%, and Lee just 7%. Lee also trails the other two candidates in fundraising, with Schiff sitting on a war chest of nearly $30 million, Porter with around $10 million, and Lee with $1.4 million so far.
Top photo: Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California speaks at a "Just Majority" nationwide bus tour press conference to call for reforms to the U.S. Supreme Court on May 21, 2023 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Demand Justice)