Newsom faces tough choice to fill ‘friend and mentor’ Feinstein’s Senate seat

<span>Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP</span>
Photograph: Rich Pedroncelli/AP

The death of Dianne Feinstein on Friday leaves a monumental void for Democrats in the US Senate. It’s now on California’s Democratic governor, Gavin Newsom, to decide how to fill it until the 2024 election.

Feinstein, who shattered barriers in California and national politics and became the longest-serving woman in Congress, died at the age of 90. As the news of her death emerged, Newsom reflected on Feinstein’s legacy in a statement to reporters that did not mention his plans for her replacement.

Related: Senator Dianne Feinstein, trailblazer for women in US politics, dies aged 90

“Dianne Feinstein was many things – a powerful, trailblazing US senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos,” Newsom said in a statement. “But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a powerful, effective leader looks like.”

As the longtime senator announced in recent months, amid failing health, that she would retire from Congress when her term ended in January 2025, a contentious race for her coveted seat commenced. The crowded field ranged from an unknown former Google executive to established Democrats already influential in Congress – the California representatives Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam Schiff.

Newsom has long had to consider who would replace Feinstein, who in recent years has struggled with health issues along with a legal battle over her husband’s estate, leading to doubts about her mental acuity in office and eventually to members within her own party to call for her resignation.

He had openly dreaded the possibility, telling NBC’s Meet the Press: “I don’t want to make another appointment,” Newsom said. “I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment.” But now he will have to act.

After Kamala Harris left her seat as the junior US senator for California to Feinstein’s senior position, to become the first female vice-president of the US alongside President Joe Biden, Newsom faced pressure to replace the only Black woman in the US Senate with another Black woman.

Instead, heeding calls to bring California its first Latino senator, Newsom chose Alex Padilla, who served as the state’s secretary of state. Unlike today, there had not been an active race after Harris’s departure.

In 2021, after he faced backlash for appointing Padilla over another Black woman, Newsom promised that should Feinstein leave office before her term ended, he would appoint a Black woman.

That promise will undoubtedly come under further scrutiny in light of Feinstein’s sudden death. Earlier this month, Newsom told NBC’s Meet the Press that he would make an “interim appointment” to Feinstein’s seat but refused to chose an existing candidate in the 2024 race, noting: “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.”

Lee, the sole Black woman among leading candidates vying for Feinstein’s Senate seat, criticized Newsom’s caretaker plan. “Troubled” by his comments, Lee, who represents a district in the San Francisco Bay Area, pointed out that there had only been two Black women in the US Senate since 1789 and that the “perspective of Black women in the US Senate is sorely needed – and needed for more than a few months”.

“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,” she said on X, formerly Twitter.

The pressure is now on Newsom to make a decision – does he fulfill his promise? And at what cost, as the California governor is expected to make a presidential run in 2028 after his term in state office ends? The person he appoints will remain in office until January 2025 as California voters decide over the next year on a new senator who will aim establish a new legacy beyond Feinstein’s shadow.