Barbara Lee to Newsom: Choosing a Black woman for short-term appointment is ‘insulting’

A man gestures with both hands while he speaks.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom
(Associated Press)
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Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s recent health troubles and advanced age have focused attention and pressure on another former San Francisco mayor: It would be up to Gov. Gavin Newsom to select a person to finish Feinstein’s term if she died or resigned.

Should he be faced with the need to appoint a replacement, Newsom said in an interview airing Sunday that he would pick a short-term caretaker, not one of the candidates running for Feinstein’s seat next year.

“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom said in the interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd.


“That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

The candidates running to replace Feinstein have made the prospect of this choice all the more intriguing, in part because Newsom promised in 2021 to appoint a Black woman if the seat opened.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is the only prominent Black woman in the race. Two other Democratic members of Congress are also running: Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine.

“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 when Todd asked if he’d stick to his promise to appoint a Black woman.

The 100-member Senate does not include a single Black woman, a void left when Kamala Harris vacated her California seat and was sworn in as vice president in 2021.

Throughout her long career, California’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein had maintained a polished public image. Now her personal affairs have come flooding into public view.

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Despite pressure on Newsom to appoint a Black woman to take Harris’ seat, the Democratic governor instead tapped then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, a longtime political ally who made history as California’s first Latino senator.


Newsom spokesman Anthony York declined to name anyone the governor might be considering if he is faced with appointing a replacement for Feinstein, saying “it’s a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical.”

On Sunday after the segment aired, Lee blasted Newsom, saying his comments smacked of tokenism and that: “Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”

“I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks,” Lee said in a written statement.

“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.”

The longtime congresswoman’s candidacy has not taken off so far, with Porter and Schiff outpacing her in fundraising and polling. In a recent UC Berkeley/Los Angeles Times poll, the Oakland congresswoman had 7% of the support, with Porter and Schiff receiving 17% and 20%, respectively.

The same survey found that Newsom’s preference to appoint a short-term caretaker is out of step with public opinion. Asked what Newsom should do if Feinstein steps down, 51% of likely voters said the governor should appoint someone who is prepared to run for a full Senate term in the 2024 election.

Portraits of Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter
Democratic Senate candidates, from left: Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter.
(Associated Press)

A quarter of likely voters said he should appoint someone who is willing to serve as an interim appointee and not run for a full term. The rest had no opinion.

In the NBC interview, Newsom said that California remains well represented in the U.S. Senate despite Feinstein’s health challenges, and that her staff is equipped to handle many responsibilities.

“We’re working extraordinarily closely together,” he said.

He also recognized that he has had an unusual run of appointing officials to fill vacancies in statewide elected positions. In addition to appointing Padilla, in recent years he has selected the secretary of state and attorney general. All are Democrats, and each went on to easily win election to full terms.

“I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment. I’ve made plenty of appointments,” Newsom said.

Times Sacramento Bureau Chief Laurel Rosenhall contributed to this report.