Column: Newsom’s promise to appoint a Black woman for a Senate vacancy creates a quandary

A woman and a man wave while standing.
Vice President Kamala Harris joins California Gov. Gavin Newsroom at a rally against the failed gubernatorial recall election of Newsom in 2021. Newsom disappointed some Black politicians and political activists when he did not appoint a Black woman to fill the Senate vacancy left when Harris was elected vice president.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom promised two years ago to appoint a Black woman to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein if she resigned. If he merely appointed a temporary “caretaker” would that honor his pledge?

I wouldn’t think so. It wouldn’t be in keeping with the spirit of his promise.

The governor seemed to be swearing that if given the opportunity, he would fill a glaring Senate void and make sure there was at least one Black woman member of America’s most prestigious and powerful legislative body.

She’d be a full-fledged senator, not a temp.

She would follow in the footsteps of California’s first Black senator, Kamala Harris, who departed to become vice president. Newsom upset many Black women by not replacing Harris with another Black woman. Instead, he appointed his longtime political ally, then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, to be California’s first Latino senator.


Newsom never should have made the pledge. He would have been better off leaving himself some flexibility. But now he’s stuck with the commitment.

And no matter who the governor selected, he’d risk making more enemies than friends.

That’s why no one is probably more eager than Newsom for Feinstein to get well and return to Washington and serve out her term.

Asked Tuesday whether he still intends to fill a hypothetical Feinstein vacancy with a Black woman, the governor answered: “I hope I’ll never have to make that decision.”

“I wish her only the best,” he said. “She’s a friend and a mentor going back decades. I … look forward to her getting back to work.”

All the “caretaker” talk is mere speculation, of course. But it’s rampant in political circles and in the news media.

Feinstein, 89, has not given any hints of resigning, despite pressure from some lefty Democrats — including a Bay Area Democratic colleague — for the centrist senator to hang it up.


“It is obvious she can no longer fulfill her duties,” Rep. Ro Khanna of Fremont tweeted recently, calling for Feinstein to resign.

Khanna is co-chair of Oakland Rep. Barbara Lee’s campaign to replace Feinstein, who in February announced she won’t run for a sixth term next year. Lee herself, however, has been 100% respectful of California’s longest serving senator.

Speculation about whether Feinstein would serve out her term began more than two years ago with several reports of diminishing cognitive acuity, including memory loss. But the senator was voting until two months ago when she was hospitalized with painful shingles.

She hasn’t voted since, jeopardizing President Biden’s agenda in a Senate where Democrats have only a two-vote majority. Presidential judgeship nominations are hung up in the Senate Judiciary Committee because her absence produces a partisan deadlock.

So, it’s crucial for Democrats that Feinstein get back to Washington and vote. She can’t do that working at home in San Francisco. And there’s no telling when doctors will allow her to travel.

Meanwhile, there’s a spirited race developing to succeed Feinstein when her term ends after next year. And it could affect who Newsom would select to serve the rest of Feinstein’s tenure, if she resigned before her stint was up.

Lee, 76, is a Black woman with 25 years’ experience in Congress. She’d be a logical choice for Newsom, although a bit more liberal than he is. She’d be trained and ready.


But Newsom might see that as unfair to the two leading frontrunners — Reps. Adam Schiff, 62, of Burbank and Katie Porter, 49, of Irvine — because it would be an invaluable campaign boost for Lee.

So, he might choose to appoint a caretaker who would promise to serve only temporarily and not run for a full term next year.

A historical note: California has had one caretaker senator — Democrat Thomas Storke of Santa Barbara, who served for only two months in 1938 and never voted because Congress wasn’t in session.

I called a few Black women in politics and asked whether they’d accept a caretaker appointment by Newsom as a kept promise if it were a Black woman.

“He’d still be fulfilling his promise but I’d be disappointed,” said Assemblywoman Lori D. Wilson (D-Suisun City), chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, which has endorsed Lee.

“I would hope in a free democratic society we would not put limitations on people if we appoint them: ‘You can’t run for election. You can’t stay any longer.’ Qualified people should be empowered to run and be free to compete.”


Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) — the only Black woman in the state Senate — said the caretaker “scenario doesn’t meet the criteria of [California] setting an example for the rest of the country.”

But Assemblywoman Tina McKinnor (D-Hawthorne) said a caretaker appointment would be “fair.” Then “let the voters decide” on the next full-term senator.

Adamantly opposed to the caretaker notion, however, is Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, an advocacy group pushing for more women of color in elective office.

“I believe the stakes are too high to prioritize political neutrality over the best person prepared to step in and do the work right now, and that’s Barbara Lee,” Allison said.

“I thought [Newsom’s] pledge was a game changer and a real commitment to have a Black woman in the Senate. And a placeholder doesn’t quite do that.”

“If Newsom has national political ambitions,” Allison continued, “he needs to be seen as someone who can be trusted by an incredibly energetic voting bloc.


“Don’t half do it. Lean into it.”

I suspect many Black women would be offended if Newsom tapped one as merely a temp senator — like she was a second-class citizen.

Newsom made the pledge. He should honor it by choosing a full-timer. Probably Lee.

But hopefully he’ll be spared by a recuperated Feinstein soon returning to the office.