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The ugly proxy war over Feinstein's Senate seat

The California senator's health and a promise Gov. Gavin Newsom made two years ago is complicating the state's first real Democratic primary in decades.
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LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom may soon earn the rare distinction of having selected both of his state’s senators — but he’s not happy about the prospect, according to those close to him.

As Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, 89, charts an uncertain path in Washington after having returned to work following a health issue, the fight over whether she should remain and the fate of the Senate seat she occupies have devolved into an ugly proxy war in California among the three high-profile Democrats vying to replace her, with Newsom stuck in the middle.

Feinstein has already announced she intends to retire at the end of her term next year, setting up a crowded primary fight. But if she were to vacate the seat before then, Newsom would name someone to finish the term — a selection that would be seen as tipping the scales in the primary.

Image: Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more than two-month absence at the Capitol on May 11, 2023.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more than two-month absence at the Capitol on May 11, 2023. J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Two years ago after he picked Sen. Alex Padilla to fill an empty seat, Newsom promised on MSNBC to select a Black woman for any future vacancies, which was widely understood to be a nod to Rep. Barbara Lee.

That, however, was before Lee jumped into the Senate race; before powerful Democrats like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi went all in for one of her rivals, Rep. Adam Schiff; and before some of Newsom’s own allies went to work for the third candidate in the race, Rep. Katie Porter.

“Newsom always says that he hates these” appointments, said a California Democratic strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “He talks about how you make one person temporarily happy and piss off a million others. I didn’t really believe him on the others — but I do believe him on this one.

"Any decision pisses off someone important," the strategist added. "There's more of a downside than upside to just about anything you do."

Newsom, who gets lobbied about the Senate seat everywhere he goes, is sure to be inundated by opinions at the California Democratic Party's convention in Los Angeles this weekend, which will bring together thousands of delegates, activists and power brokers from across the massive state.

“Emails, calls, texts, people stopping me. I’m not kidding,” Newsom said in an interview with KTTV of Los Angeles this month about the lobbying efforts over the Senate seat — which, to be clear, remains occupied. “This is one of the biggest topics here, and it was one of the biggest topics when I was in Alabama, even Jackson, Mississippi.”

Three years after he appointed Padilla — when Kamala Harris vacated the seat to become vice president — he understands why people are wary of his possibly doing it again.

“For those that say enough of Newsom making those picks — I get it, I’m with you!” Newsom said.

The decision to select Padilla was far less controversial, but it nonetheless frustrated powerful Black Democrats — key allies the ambitious Newsom doesn’t want to alienate as he eyes a potential future presidential campaign. 

The California Democratic Party’s Black Caucus was “incredibly hurt and disappointed in the governor’s decision” to replace the only Black woman in the Senate with a Latino man, the group’s chairperson, Taisha Brown, said at the time. “Through a stroke of a pen, his actions have denied a Black female representation in the United States Senate.”

This time, the stakes are even higher. 

Many Black Democrats are doing everything they can to push Newsom to stick by his pledge to appoint a Black woman, by which they typically mean Lee. 

But other California Democrats, especially those allied with Schiff or Porter, insist on the opposite just as vehemently.

They argue that Newsom would unfairly be putting his thumb on the scale of the primary by elevating Lee, a less well-known lawmaker from Oakland, a critical boost in statewide name recognition and the power of incumbency.

Meanwhile, Newsom’s kitchen cabinet of outside political advisers is divided among all three candidates, making it difficult for him to fully trust their advice. A former spokesperson works for Porter, another runs a super PAC supporting Lee, and the powerful firm run by Newsom’s consultants manages a pro-Schiff super PAC. 

Many party insiders wonder whether Newsom regrets having made his pledge before the race kicked off, but Rusty Hicks, the state Democratic Party chairman, said, “I have no doubt the governor will honor his commitments.”

Some have floated other ideas to try to defuse the situation. What about a different Black woman? Or a caretaker, like former Sen. Barbara Boxer?

“I saw Barbara recently, and I can’t imagine her agreeing to that. She loves her semi-retired life in Palm Springs! She and Stewart were happy and thriving,” said Boxer’s former campaign manager, Rose Kapolczynski.

And Newsom has seen firsthand that caretakers can’t necessarily be counted on to stay in their assigned roles.

When Newsom was elected lieutenant governor in 2010, he cleared the path for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to replace him as mayor with a caretaker, Ed Lee, who had promised not to run in the upcoming election. The next year, Lee changed his mind and ran for and won a full term as mayor.

Of course, there are plenty of other qualified Black women in California, but Lee allies are trying to enforce solidarity on her behalf.

“It will be very difficult to find a Black woman to take that seat as an appointment when they know that the only reason they’re being appointed is just to block another Black woman from holding that seat long-term,” said the chairman of the California Progressive Caucus, Amar Shergill, a vocal Lee supporter. “So the pressure is on to make sure that never happens.” 

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes sniping has turned nastier.

Lee supporters accuse Schiff and his so-called establishment allies, like Pelosi, of manipulating the ailing Feinstein to stay in office to block Lee, which they have denied. Pelosi says she wants to let Feinstein make her own decision, seeing sexism in the push to force her to retire. Feinstein's allies have pointed to men in similar health who weren't pushed out of the Senate.

Feinstein’s standing with Californians continues to deteriorate as questions mount about her physical and cognitive health.

Two-thirds of registered voters agree she is “no longer fit to continue serving in the U.S. Senate,” according to a new poll from the University of California, Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. Just 27% said she should stay in office. 

But voters were split over whether they want Newsom to make an appointment to replace her and whether she should somehow be forced out of office.

“The poll clearly shows that while support for Sen. Feinstein has waned considerably since 2018, there is no clear consensus about how the process should play out,” said the survey’s co-director G. Cristina Mora.

Inside the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, the party’s grassroots faithful were also divided over how to handle the situation, with even some Feinstein critics resigned to the fact that path of least resistance might be for her to stay.

Jacob Rodriguez, 23, a delegate from Imperial County, was considering introducing a resolution that would “diplomatically” ask Feinstein to step down.

He knows it’s a long shot and would likely just be symbolic, but he said it’s past time for a younger person to take over. “It sounds mean, but it’s a chamber that’s in charge of the whole country. They should all be of sound mind,” Rodriguez said.

But Charlene Lefaive, 71, and Sherry Chavarría, 66, delegates from Tulare County in Central California’s agricultural belt, said Feinstein shouldn’t go anywhere.

“To take a person and judge them based off their health issues is absolutely horrific," Lefaive said.

Added Chavarría: “She’s wonderful. We still need her.”