Whither Dianne Feinstein?
Feinstein’s six-decade-long political career, nearly half of it in the U.S. Senate, is coming to an end, but when and how is uncertain, creating a vortex of political speculation and maneuvering.
Feinstein, who will turn 90 in June, finally – and with obvious reluctance – decided not to seek another Senate term next year. It muted growing pressure from fellow Democrats that she retire in response to reports about her cognition problems and her ideological alienation from the party’s left wing.
Even before her formal announcement, two members of Congress from Southern California, left-leaning Katie Porter and a more moderate Adam Schiff, had declared and begun amassing the millions of dollars required for a statewide campaign in California.
Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a long-time icon of the Democratic Party’s left wing whose own political career is nearly as lengthy as Feinstein’s, had the good manners to wait for the senator’s announcement before declaring her candidacy.
Porter and Schiff already have multi-million-dollar campaign treasuries while Lee, who has never been a big money-raiser, is badly behind in that aspect.
A poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies, released in February just after Feinstein announced she would retire, found Schiff and Porter running neck-and-neck with Lee trailing.
At the moment, it appears most likely that Porter and Schiff would be the top two finishers in the March 2024 primary and face each other in the November 2024 general election, but the situation is very fluid because of new uncertainty about Feinstein’s tenure.
Newsom Would Appoint Successor
Feinstein has been absent from the Senate in recent weeks due to a bout with shingles, hindering the majority Democrats and President Joe Biden from pursuing their agendas. Her absence has renewed calls from the party’s left wing that she step down and allow Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a successor.
San Jose Congressman Ro Khanna, a progressive leader and Lee supporter, has been the most vociferous figure demanding that Feinstein resign, but those close to Feinstein resent the pressure and insist that she won’t give in.
“Ro Khanna has no influence on her whatsoever,” one California Democrat told Politico, adding that Feinstein “is not going to respond to pressure.”
Looming over the situation is a promise that Newsom made to a television interviewer in 2021 that if Feinstein were to leave the Senate before her term ended, he would appoint a Black woman to succeed her.
The question arose because Newsom had appointed a Latino man, Alex Padilla, to the Senate seat Kamala Harris gave up to become vice president, leaving the Senate without a Black woman member. When asked whether he would commit to appointing a Black woman, Newsom replied, “I have multiple names in mind. We have multiple names in mind — and the answer is yes.”
Were Feinstein’s seat to become vacant, Newsom would be under heavy pressure to make good on the promise – and Lee would be the obvious choice. However, such an appointment would also give Lee, now running behind Porter and Schiff, an overwhelming advantage for a full term. Newsom would be accused – rightfully – of tipping the scales of the election.
Could Newsom wriggle out of his promise? It’s become axiomatic that nothing he says should be taken at face value because he often backtracks or revises his spur-of-the-moment declarations. He could easily cite the pending election as a rationale for making another interim appointment.
How about making Jerry Brown a senator for a year or so, giving another venerable politician a chance to fulfill an ambition that voters denied him 41 years ago?
Now that would be interesting.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. For more columns by Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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