Senator Dianne Feinstein passed away Thursday at the age of 90, after a decades-long political career. Her passing has only added fuel to long-burning fires of speculation over who might succeed her as California senator.
Feinstein was first elected to represent the Golden State in the Senate in 1992, and her career since then has been marked by highs and lows of equal significance. As chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for example, Feinstein led the investigation and publishing of the Torture Report, which detailed the CIA’s long history of horrific interrogation tactics before, during, and after September 11.
But in recent years, her insistence on remaining in office amid growing health issues marred her legacy. Earlier this year, the senator went missing from Congress for nearly three months after a particularly nasty bout of shingles. That illness led to her contracting Ramsay Hunt syndrome as well as encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain that can cause lasting memory and language problems, as well as bouts of confusion. After returning to the Hill, there were several instances where Feinstein seemed lost, including during votes in committee. She was hospitalized anew in August.
So what happens next? All eyes are on California Governor Gavin Newsom, who gets to appoint someone to take over for Feinstein through the end of 2024.
It’s critical that Newsom appoints someone sooner rather than later. Feinstein’s absence leaves the Judiciary Committee with a 10–10 split across party lines, virtually guaranteeing a block on President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees. A spokesperson for Newsom said Friday that he did not have any information on when or how Newsom would replace Feinstein.
Newsom has repeatedly made public promises to appoint a Black woman to the seat. But he also vowed earlier this month that he would not select any of the California Democrats who are already running for the seat in 2024, saying he didn’t want to “tip” the results of the election.
That announcement was a huge blow to one of the most prominent progressives and Black Democratic politicians in the state: Representative Barbara Lee. Lee publicly fired back at Newsom at the time, saying that “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.”
Newsom’s decision to take all 2024 candidates out of the equation also rules out Lee’s competitors: Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter.
Naturally, Newsom doesn’t have to actually keep his promise about appointing a Black woman. In 2021, when Kamala Harris resigned from her Senate seat to become vice president, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla, who became the state’s first Latino senator.
But assuming he does stick to his word, there are still some options. Names that have been floated include Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who is less than a year into her first term, or San Francisco Mayor London Breed, though Breed is publicly supporting Lee’s 2024 campaign. Some political insiders have mentioned Bay Area Transit Board member Lateefah Simon, though she is already running to succeed Lee in a campaign that has drawn decent support.
Other contenders include Shirley Weber, California’s secretary of state; Holly Mitchell, a Los Angeles county supervisor; Angela Glover Blackwell, a civil rights lawyer in Oakland. No one knows if Newsom favors any of these potential candidates yet, but behind the scenes, the race to make a decision is likely already on.