The death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein at age 90 prompted a cascade of tributes for the trailblazing California Democrat. But it also triggered a bitter fight within the party over who should fill her Senate seat.
At the center of it all is the state’s popular governor, Gavin Newsom, a rising liberal star in the party who is also considered a future White House contender.
It will be up to Mr. Newsom to appoint someone to finish Mrs. Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025, and he’s publicly admitted dreading such a decision.
The party’s left wing is pressuring Mr. Newsom to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the most liberal House Democrats and a former chairwoman of the House Progressive Caucus. She’s running in the March 5, 2024, Democratic primary for senator against Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and others.
Mr. Newsom pledged years ago that he’d fill a vacant Senate seat with a Black woman, and Ms. Lee checks that box.
But two weeks ago, Mr. Newsom said he would appoint a caretaker senator — not a candidate already running for the Senate seat in 2024.
“That primary is just months away,” Mr. Newsom said earlier this month on NBC News. “I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Mr. Newsom’s announcement drew criticism from advocacy groups for minority women as well as Ms. Lee, who according to a new poll is trailing Mr. Schiff and Ms. Porter, who are White. Ms. Lee would likely get a significant boost if appointed to the vacant seat, assuring the Senate will have one Black female senator.
She called Mr. Newsom’s announcement “infuriating,” and an insult to Black women, who, she said, “have been the backbone of the Democratic Party … and have done so much of the heavy lifting.”
Mr. Newsom’s communications team responded to Ms. Lee’s Sept. 10 statement by pointing out that Mrs. Feinstein was still on the job and there was no vacancy to fill.
Now her Senate desk is empty save for a black cloth drape and a vase of white roses, and Mr. Newsom is under pressure to fill the seat quickly.
Mrs. Feinstein died as the House and Senate battled over government funding legislation ahead of a Sept. 30 deadline.
Her death left Senate Democrats with a functioning majority of 50-49, but their caucus could shrink again if embattled New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez heeds calls from his own party to resign following his indictment on corruption charges. Mr. Menendez has vowed not to step down.
With the two parties battling over spending limits amid a government shutdown, Democrats can’t afford to lose votes.
Mr. Newsom on Friday said nothing about his pending appointment.
He paid tribute to Mrs. Feinstein, who served as one of his political mentors. He called her “a political giant,” and a history-making fighter for women and Democratic causes.
She was the first female president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first woman to serve as mayor of San Francisco. In 1992, she and Sen. Barbara Boxer together became the first women from California elected to the U.S. Senate.
While some of her politics veered left — she fought for a ban on semi-automatic firearms and ammunition — Mrs. Feinstein was also considered a moderate on some issues.
She held powerful positions. She was chair of both the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence committees, and she was part of a nearly extinct class of lawmakers who prided themselves on working across the aisle to pass legislation.
“She was a political giant, whose tenacity was matched by her grace. She broke down barriers and glass ceilings, but never lost her belief in the spirit of political cooperation,” Mr. Newsom said.
Mr. Schiff and Ms. Porter also offered tributes to Mrs. Feinstein but said nothing about the looming appointment or the upcoming Senate primary.
A Sept. 7 poll of likely voters conducted by Berkeley IGS showed Mr. Schiff with 20% of support, Ms. Porter with 17% and Ms. Lee trailing the two with 7%. One-third of voters were undecided.
Voters in the poll, by a 2 to 1 margin, said Mr. Newsom should appoint someone already running for the Senate seat if a vacancy occurred, rather than a caretaker senator.
“While most Californians prefer that Newsom appoint a successor to Feinstein who will run for the full term, if put in this position the governor’s political calculus is complicated. With three well-known and well-liked Democrats vying for the seat, appointing a likely successor would divide the governor’s supporters,” poll director Eric Schickler said.
Mr. Newsom will soon be in the rare position of appointing both of his state’s senate seats. He picked then-California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill the vacancy left by Kamala Harris when she was sworn in as vice president in January 2021.
Mr. Newsom was criticized at the time for not choosing a Black woman to replace Mrs. Harris, who was the Senate’s only Black female.
Now that Mrs. Lee is presumably shut out of consideration, Mr. Newsom’s shortlist likely includes Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who he appointed to replace Mr. Padilla, and State Controller Malia Cohen.
Other possibilities include two prominent California mayors, San Francisco’s London Breed and Los Angeles’s Karen Bass.
Mrs. Feinstein died after months of failing health and mental decline. She resisted calls to step aside and remained on the job until her death.
She was the 302nd senator to die in office.
Lawmakers were ready with tributes soon after her death was announced.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, New York Democrat, gave a tearful floor speech praising her decades of work on gun control, environmental issues and U.S. policy on the treatment of prisoners overseas.
“Dianne’s work extended far beyond the Senate floor as she gave a voice, a platform, being a leader to women throughout the country for decades,” Mr. Schumer said. “She didn’t just put down closed doors for women, she held them open for generations of women who followed her.”