Oakland’s Rep. Barbara Lee, struggling to gain traction in her U.S. Senate bid against Democratic rivals, ripped Gov. Gavin Newsom over remarks in an interview Sunday that if incumbent Dianne Feinstein can’t finish her term, he’d appoint a Black woman who isn’t running for her seat as a temporary caretaker.
Asked by interviewer Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press whether he would abide by a previous pledge to appoint a Black woman should Feinstein, 90, be unable to finish her term ending on Jan.3, 2025, Newsom said he would. But he added he’d seek an “interim appointment” rather than tap someone now running for her seat.
“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom responded about the race for Feinstein’s seat in which polls show Lee trailing Democratic reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
“But you’re going to abide by — it would be essentially a caretaker — an African American woman?” Todd asked.
“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. “Yes.”
In a statement afterward, Lee said she was “troubled by the governor’s remarks.” Schiff and Porter are White and Lee is the only prominent Black Democratic woman in the race. If Feinstein doesn’t complete her term, the Democratic governor could either appoint a replacement to serve out the remainder of the term or leave it vacant until voters choose a successor.
“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 said. “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.”
Anthony York, Governor Newsom’s senior communications advisor, responded in a statement that “this is 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. “Voters will have their say on who should replace Senator Feinstein when they go to the polls less than 6 months from now.”
Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor elected to the U.S. Senate more than 30 years ago, has faced mounting questions about her health and mental acuity since defeating a younger Democratic challenger, Kevin de León of Los Angeles, in 2018.
Feinstein missed more than two months of work earlier this year as she recovered from complications of shingles. Since she returned to the Senate in May — in a wheelchair — reporters in the Capitol have noted moments when she seemed confused, fueling ongoing speculation she’d step down.
Newsom noted in Sunday’s interview that he has “no objectivity whatsoever” when it comes to Feinstein, who he said he’s “known since I was a kid,” interned with her when he was in college and she was mayor and that he cherishes a signed book from her.
Newsom told Todd he doesn’t believe Californians are being shortchanged by having such a frail figure serving as their senator. He said her office has engaged with him on issues, and that he dreads the thought of appointing a replacement.
“I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment,” Newsom told Todd, though he added that “if we have to do it, we’ll do it.”
But he said that’s all just speculation.
“Her term expires, she’s not running for re-election,” Newsom said. “So this time next year we’ll be in a very different place.”
Porter and Schiff announced they would run for Feinstein’s seat in January, weeks before Feinstein on Feb. 14 said she wouldn’t seek reelection. Lee jumped into the race later that month.
Lee noted there are currently no Black women serving in the Senate and that only two Black woman have served there, for a total of 10 years.
Polls have consistently put Schiff and Porter ahead of Lee in the race, which analysts assume will ultimately be won by another Democrat, as the party leads Republicans 2 to 1 in California voter registration.
But it remains to be seen whether two Democrats advance from the March primary to the November runoff, as Feinstein and de León did in 2018, or a Republican emerges among the top two in the primary, as in the 2020 race in which Newsom appointee Alex Padilla defeated Republican lawyer Mark Meuser.
A Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll out last week put Schiff ahead with 20% followed by Porter at 17% and Lee at 7%. Combined support for leading Republican contenders would top 21%, but a third of those surveyed were undecided. The poll was discouraging for Lee, however, who trailed at least one if not both her top Democratic rivals among key demographics statewide, including Black voters. But analysts noted it’s early in the race and many statewide voters are less familiar with Lee.
The poll found voters prefer by a two-to-one margin that should it be necessary to make an appointment to fill Feinstein’s seat, Newsom pick someone prepared to run for a full term rather than an interim appointment.