Column: Newsom takes heat for pledging a caretaker in U.S. Senate. But it’s the right thing to do

California Rep. Barbara Lee and Gov. Gavin Newsom
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who is running to replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, condemned comments by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, saying: “The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting.”
(Los Angeles Times)
Share via

Two and a half years ago, Gavin Newsom put his foot in his mouth.

On Sunday, California’s governor extricated it, saying anyone chosen to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat would be a placeholder until voters have their say in 2024.

“Interim appointment,” Newsom said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” also reiterating his plan to appoint a Black woman, should an opening occur. “I don’t want to get involved in the primary.”

There is, of course, no vacancy at the moment. But speculation swirls apace, given the fragile mental and physical state of California’s 90-year-old senator, Dianne Feinstein.


That’s where race, politics and shifting circumstance converge.

First, though, let us step back in time.

In March 2021, Newsom was facing the gathering threat of a recall election. The effort would fail, resoundingly, but that result was many months away.

The governor needed all the political help he could muster and there was a danger of losing support among Black voters, a key Democratic constituency. Some were angry that Newsom had chosen Alex Padilla, a Latino and California’s secretary of state, to replace Kamala Harris when she left the Senate to become vice president.

That left the Senate without a single Black woman among its 100 members.

“A real blow to the African American community, African American women, to women in general,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said after Newsom named Padilla.

And so months later when the governor appeared on MSNBC and was asked by host Joy Reid if he’d “restore” Harris’ seat by appointing a Black woman, Newsom leaped at the question.

“We have multiple names in mind,” he said, “and the answer is yes.”

There was good reason for Newsom to weigh race and gender in filling a theoretical vacant seat. Only two Black women have served in the whole history of the Senate, which is, bluntly stated, wildly unrepresentative and a disgrace.

But Newsom’s pledge seemed less high-minded and noble than impulsive and calculated.

It assuaged some Newsom critics. And while it’s impossible to make a direct correlation, the governor’s action surely didn’t hurt him with Black voters. More than 8 in 10 voted in September 2021 to oppose his recall, significantly more than white, Latino and Asian American voters.


But like many expedient acts, Newsom’s promise proved less salutary with time and more like a set of handcuffs.

Feinstein is still in office, to the great consternation of some, particularly those lefties who’ve never liked her more centrist inclinations.

A family feud is playing out in the courts over the vast fortune left behind by Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s late husband.

Sept. 7, 2023

More to the point, there is now a fiercely competitive primary underway to replace her.

“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off” to put a proverbial thumb on the scale by choosing one of them to fill out Feinstein’s term, Newsom said Sunday. (Bowing to political and physical realities, Feinstein has wisely chosen not to run again in 2024.)

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

He is absolutely correct.

One Senate appointment, as Newsom acknowledged, is plenty. There are more than 20 million Californians registered to vote. Let them decide whom they’d like as their voice in the Senate.


It’s not racist or sexist to suggest as much.

But Rep. Barbara Lee, one of those competing most vigorously to replace Feinstein and the only prominent Black woman running, issued a statement condemning Newsom’s comments.

“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,” said the Oakland Democrat.

“Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”

Lee, too, is correct in suggesting California’s next senator shouldn’t be awarded the position merely for showing up.

Nor should a candidate be given an unfair advantage by running as the incumbent.

There is reason to doubt Lee will prevail in the Senate contest. Perhaps that’s why her supporters have been pushing for her appointment should a vacancy occur.

Lee is politically far to the left of many Californians and her age, 77, has to be a consideration given Feinstein’s deteriorating performance.

It’s not ageist to suggest as much. By the time Lee were to accumulate significant clout in the seniority-based Senate, she would be well into her 80s.


That said, there is still plenty of opportunity before the March primary for Lee to make her case to voters.

Meanwhile, if Feinstein were to suddenly depart before her term ends, there are plenty of qualified Black women in the fields of politics, government, academia or philanthropy who would well serve California on an interim basis.

The time may soon come for Feinstein to resign. Gov. Gavin Newsom should resist efforts to hijack her Senate seat and instead appoint a caretaker, letting voters choose among would-be successors.

April 18, 2023

Back when Newsom made his pledge to choose a Black woman to replace Feinstein, it made a certain amount of sense.

No longer.

Politicians are often criticized for breaching their promises, or going back on their word. Newsom didn’t exactly retract his pledge. He simply modified it to reflect changing circumstances.

It was the right thing to do.