ANAHEIM, Calif. – The Democrats' fragile majority in the U.S. Senate puts extra pressure on California Gov. Gavin Newsom to quickly pick a replacement for Sen. Dianne Feinstein following her death, a fraught decision for a two-term governor with national ambitions of his own.
The Democratic governor had promised to appoint a Black woman in 2021 as concerns grew about Feinstein's declining health. He also has said he would avoid the field of candidates already campaigning for the post, which will be on the ballot next year and includes Rep. Barbara Lee, one of the state's most prominent Black women currently serving in elected office.
In the hours after Feinstein's death, Newsom quickly faced calls to honor his commitment, with some leaders calling on him specifically to name Lee to the post, a reminder of the fraught dynamic Newsom faces with a key Democratic constituency.
Aimee Allison, who founded She the People, a political advocacy network for women of color, said in a statement that “there is no clearer choice for this appointment than Rep. Lee.”
Newsom’s political allies and advisers were largely quiet Friday about the governor's thinking, and Newsom avoided any public appearances that would surely result in questions about his impending choice.
It's not his first time selecting a U.S. senator, after being tasked with choosing a replacement for Kamala Harris when she was elected vice president. It was one of a string of appointments Newsom made in late 2020 and early 2021, a power that gave him kingmaker status among the state's ambitious Democrats.
But finding a replacement for Feinstein is a less desirable task and one Newsom has openly said he did not want.
Newsom has the sole authority to name a successor. He could even pick himself, though that is unlikely. He could also call a special election, but he's not expected to do that. He sidestepped the issue in a statement marking her death Friday.
“Dianne Feinstein was many things — a powerful, trailblazing U.S. Senator; an early voice for gun control; a leader in times of tragedy and chaos. But to me, she was a dear friend, a lifelong mentor, and a role model not only for me, but to my wife and daughters for what a powerful, effective leader looks like."
On Capitol Hill, Feinstein's death leaves Senate Democrats with no margin for error until a successor is appointed.
Democrats now have a functional majority of just 50 seats in the Senate, while Republicans hold 49. At the same time, many Democrats are calling for the resignation of the indicted Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., although the embattled Democrat has vowed not to step down.
And while Democrats continue to control Congress' upper chamber, Feinstein's absence will make it harder to advance Biden's judge nominees in the Judiciary Committee.
For Newsom, any choice he makes risks alienating key allies at home, including those he would need for a future national campaign.
Should he follow through on his pledge to avoid picking from those already running in the Senate primary, he could select a true caretaker who would be replaced by whomever voters select in next year's election. A handful of Black women in office have been floated as possibilities, including Secretary of State Shirley Weber and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell.
But Lee and others lashed out at Newsom earlier in the month after he indicated he would select a caretaker instead of picking from the current slate of candidates.
“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 posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
That was echoed by Allison of She the People, who said, “Black women are not mere caretakers, but the voting and organizing center of the national Democratic Party.”
Lee on Friday posted that Feinstein was “a champion for our state, and served as the voice of a political revolution for women.” She did not address the open seat.
Some California Democrats are still upset about Newsom's last Senate appointment.
He chose Alex Padilla, then California’s secretary of state and a personal friend, to replace Harris. That process took more than six weeks. That made Padilla California’s first Latino senator, but it also left the Senate without a Black woman.
He later promised that if Feinstein’s seat became vacant, he would choose a Black woman to replace her.
In a recent interview with Fox 11 TV in Los Angeles, Newsom said he was being swamped with recommendations for how to fill a possible Senate vacancy.
The decision for Newsom is clouded by his personal relationship with the late senator.
Newsom, whose father was a prominent judge in San Francisco, has known Feinstein since he was a child and has spoken recently about their personal connection. He interned in her office in college and said he considers her to be family. He said it wasn’t long ago that she would call him on the phone to discuss a variety of issues, from water policy to forest management.
“I have no objectivity whatsoever,” he said in a recent interview with NBC when asked about Feinstein and her decision to stay in the Senate.
He said he was hoping he would never have to make a decision to fill her seat.
Peoples reported from New York. AP writers Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento, California, and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed.