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Will Gavin Newsom Keep His Promise To California Black Women Without Any Strings Attached?
Barbara Lee and the ‘caretaker’ appointment dilemma.
Political promises can often prove embarrassing, especially when you’re forced to make good on them. Back in 2021, California Gov. Gavin Newsom told MSNBC’s Joy Reid (and the world, as this was televised and all) that he would choose a Black woman to replace Dianne Feinstein if she resigned or otherwise left the Senate.
“I have multiple names in mind,” he responded when Reid pressed on whether he’d commit to picking a Black woman. “We have multiple names in mind — and the answer is yes.”
Those “multiple names” were apparently not any Black woman who actually wanted the job, at least permanently. Feinstein didn’t officially declare that she wouldn’t seek another term until February of this year. Rep. Katie Porter had already announced her own campaign in January, followed by Rep. Adam Schiff. Rep. Barbara Lee, who’s Black, declared her candidacy shortly after Feinstein’s retirement announcement.
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This complicated Newsom’s promise, as other Democrats were now running for the seat and one of them was decidedly a Black woman. Feinstein’s health had long been in question, but there were more vocal suggestions that perhaps she should retire once she was hospitalized in March and was absent from the Senate for months. It now no longer seemed certain that she’d finish her term. If Newsom had to replace Feinstein, there was a very qualified Black woman who’d actively expressed interest.
However, Newsom made it clear last month that he wouldn’t pick anyone who was already running because “it would be completely unfair to the Democrats [who] have worked their tails off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
So, Newsom would just make an “interim” appointment of a Black woman who’ll complete Feinstein’s current term but won’t run for another. (My cousin Sheila in Oakland is available.)
Interim appointments aren’t unusual, nor is Newsom’s reluctance to put his thumb on the scale. He never actually wanted to choose a replacement, and you can’t blame him for avoiding that political landmine. However, no one forced him to make this pandering, bone-dead stupid commitment. Maybe he thought it would turn out the vote from a vital demographic for his upcoming recall election. However, now the debt has come due. He’s not reneging but he’s hardly living up to the spirit of the promise, and this obviously irritated Lee.
“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,” she said last month.
There are currently more women named “Tammy” in the Senate than Black women, so it’s unclear why Newsom thinks a meaningful response is a drive-through Senate term for a Black woman. Ironically, Lee might’ve been at the top of the list for consideration if she hadn’t actually run for the seat. She’s 77 and would be 84 at the end of a first full term. Ed Kilgore at New York Magazine suggested that Lee could accept the interim appointment in exchange for withdrawing her candidacy for a full term, but this ignores that Lee might want to job to actually achieve something, not simply bolster her resume before retirement.
Anthony York, Newsom’s senior adviser for communication and strategy, argued just a couple weeks ago that everyone should just chill out about any potential appointment.
“This is a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical,” he said — presumably while petting a black cat and walking underneath a ladder while spilling salt. “There is no vacancy for any US Senate seat, nor does the Governor anticipate there will be one. Voters will have their say on who should replace Sen. Feinstein when they go to the polls less than six months from now.”
With respect to the late Feinstein, California has had just one full-time senator for a while now. I’m not crazy about Newsom picking a seat warmer with no elected experience. I adore Rep. Maxine Waters but I don’t think a Senate seat is a sinecure bestowed upon someone at the end of their career. An ideal interim senator would be someone who could hit the ground running. When John McCain died less than two years into his last term, his interim replacement was Jon Kyl, who’d previously served as senator before retiring in 2013. Barbara Boxer was elected to the Senate alongside Feinstein but retired in 2016. She could finish Feinstein’s term without missing a step. However, Newsom wasn’t apparently thinking about what’s best for California when he made his promise. (Also, as a Black person, I’m begging Democrats to just say they’ll pick the best person for a Senate or Supreme Court seat and then choose a damn Black woman. You don’t need the qualify the choice.)
There’s been some talk of Newsom choosing San Francisco Mayor London Breed, but she’s young and has a full career ahead of her. Why would she willingly not run for a full term as an incumbent?
The optics are going to look terrible regardless, as most likely the only Black woman in the Senate will stand down in 2025 to make way for a white man. Schiff is leading most polls and has former Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s full support, which demonstrates the problem with liberal “identity politics.” Pelosi is choosing the white guy over two woman House colleagues, one of whom is Black, presumably for ideological reasons that trump representation. (This is sort of a pattern.)
James Taylor, professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, questioned whether any high-profile Black woman Democrat would even accept the interim appointment precisely because it would seem like a slight to Lee.
Lee is consistently at the bottom of most polls and the odds are stacked against her beating Schiff even as the incumbent senator. She might as well receive the early nod, but that probably is too affirmative an action for Newsom to take.
Sunday night, however, it seemed as if Newsom had bowed to pressure and was prepared to announce an appointment without any preconditions. The news broke late that Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler would receive the nod and possibly be sworn into the Senate as early as this Wednesday. We’ll dig into this choice in another post, but Butler, a former Kamala Harris adviser, is young, well-connected, and if she runs for a full-term, she’d have a good shot at winning.
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