As three high-profile California Democrats vie to replace retiring Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom said in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" that he would not appoint any of them to the seat, should it become vacant sooner than expected.
That decision could be a blow to Rep. Barbara Lee, since her allies had reason to believe she was Newsom’s first choice to fill a potential vacancy. But that was before she entered the Senate race, where she is currently trailing in polls behind better-known and better-funded fellow Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter.
In his most direct comments on the matter yet, Newsom said in the interview with Chuck Todd for NBC News' "Meet the Press" that airs Sunday that he would instead make an “interim appointment” to replace Feinstein if necessary.
“Yes. Interim appointment. I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Lee publicly fired back at Newsom over the news, calling the idea of appointing a Black woman on only an interim basis "insulting."
"I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks. 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," Lee said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
Lee, Schiff and Porter are locked in a high-profile battle ahead of the March 5 all-party primary, when the top two vote-getters of any party will advance to the November general election. Both may end up being Democrats, given California’s partisan tilt.
A poll released Thursday from the Institute of Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found Schiff and Porter running neck and neck at 20% and 17%, respectively, while Lee trailed at 7%. A third are still undecided.
Feinstein, 90, has resisted calls to resign and said she intends to serve out the remainder of her term, which ends in January 2025.
But her declining health and an ugly family dispute over her late husband’s multi-million-dollar estate has renewed questions about her ability to do her job.
Newsom is openly dreading the prospect of having to fill another Senate vacancy, having already hand-picked his state’s other senator, Alex Padilla, to fill the seat vacated by now-Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment,” Newsom told Todd.
After facing blowback for replacing Harris, the Senate’s only Black woman, with a Latino man, Newsom pledged he would select a Black woman to fill any future vacancies.
California politicos widely understood that pledge as a nod to Lee, 77, an elder statesperson of both progressive and African American politics in California, and Newsom’s allies did little to combat that notion. But that was almost two years before Feinstein announced she would retire at the end of her term, opening a heated contest for the seat.
Since then, Lee’s allies have been hoping that Feinstein would step aside early, paving the way for Newsom to appoint Lee to the seat for the remainder of the current term and allowing her to run as an incumbent for another full term.
As the Senate contest heated up, however, many have wondered if Newsom would stick to his pledge to appoint a Black woman, and if that person would be Lee.
Newsom told Todd he still intended to appoint a Black woman should the need arise. “I abide by what I’ve said very publicly,” Newsom said when asked about it, but he strongly suggested that that person would no longer be Lee.
Newsom’s inclination to make a caretaker appointment would put him on the wrong side of public opinion in his state, according to the new Berkeley IGS poll.
By a 2-to-1 ratio — 51% to 25% — California voters said they would prefer Newsom to appoint someone prepared to run for a full term over a caretaker. That sentiment was even stronger among Democrats, with 64% saying they would want Newsom to appoint someone prepared to run for a full term in 2024, while 16% said they would prefer an interim appointee.
Polls have shown that Californians want Feinstein to step aside. But Newsom defended his longtime friend and mentor, while acknowledging that she is no longer as active as she was and that her staff is handling much of her workload.
“Her staff is still extraordinarily active and we wish her only the best,” Newsom told Todd.