Senator Dianne Feinstein (NBC News)

California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has died at the age of 90.  Feinstein, who was first elected to the Senate in 1992, was the United States longest serving senator.

Feinstein rose to prominence in California in Nov. 1978, when the city of San Francisco was devasted by the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk.

“As President of the Board of Supervisors, it is my duty to announce that both Mayor [George] Moscone and Supervisor [Harvey] Milk have been shot and killed,” Feinstein announced to a host of reporters following these horrific murders.

Dianne Feinstein was the first woman to represent California in the Senate and a central figure in the rise of women to national political power.

“Sadly, Senator Feinstein passed away last night at her home in Washington, D.C.,” her chief of staff, James Sauls, said in a statement Friday morning. “Her passing is a great loss for so many, from those who loved and cared for her to the people of California that she dedicated her life to serving.”

Feinstein was the oldest member of the U.S. Senate when she died, but many local and national political figures have been calling for her to step down for months following her battle with shingles and declining health.  She was absent from the U.S. Senate for over 2 months during a particularly tenuous time in the Senate as Democrats and Republicans were battling for votes and control of the Senate.

With control of the U.S. Senate barely controlled by Democrats with 47 members and 3 independents caucusing with the Democrats, Feinstein’s death makes control of the Senate that much more challenging (Vice President Kamala Harris is the tie breaking vote).  It will be up to Governor Gavan Newsom to quickly appoint a replacement to help restore the democrats control of the senate.

“Caretaker” vs. Full Appointment of a Black Woman

With the sudden death of Senator Feinstein, the conversation about Governor Gavin Newsom’s promise to fill California’s Senate Seat with a Black woman is once again at the forefront of the California and national political conversation.

Two and a half years ago, Gavin Newsom promised that a Black woman would be his next selection.  His remarks came following his appointment of Alex Padilla to fill the vacated seat of then-Senator Kamala Harris after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris defeated then President Donald Trump in the 2020 Presidential election.

This past Sunday, California’s governor began to walk back that promise, saying anyone chosen to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat would be a “caretaker” until voters have their say in 2024.

In an interview on “Meet the Press,” Newsom reaffirmed his commitment to “appoint a Black woman to the seat should a vacancy occur,” but then stated that appointment would only be an interim appointment stating, “I don’t want to get involved in the primary.”

Now, with Feinstein’s death occurring, the conversation about who will receive or accept this interim appointment breaks the flood gates of this debate wide open.

Let’s remember back in March 2021, with the Governor under the serious fire of a recall, Newsom needed all the political support he could find.  His popularity with Black voters had waned when he pointed Padilla to the seat, leaving the Senate without a single Black woman. He needed the Black community’s support and that support was solicited based on a promise that the next appointment would be filled with a Black woman.  Now that promise has become a reality, and now many feel that the Governor is backtracking on that promise.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (File photo)

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is currently running for the seat against Congressman Adam Schiff and Congresswoman Katie Porter, but many believe the governor should fulfill his promise by either appointing Lee to the seat, which would immediately give her campaign newfound momentum running as the incumbent or introduce a new and possibly younger Black Woman into the race.  Names that have been suggested include Supervisor Holly Mitchell (who would be a phenomenal U.S. Senator), or possibly San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who was one of Newsom’s harshest critics when he did not appoint a Black Woman to replace Kamala Harris.

“A real blow to the African American community, African American women, to women in general,” San Francisco Mayor London Breed said after Newsom named Padilla.

At the time of Newsom’s promise, Feinstein was still in office and there was no indication that her health was failing even though she was in her late 80s. But now those chickens have come home to roost and the governor’s desire to step back his commitment to “interim” feels more like a pacification than a true commitment to a commitment to diversifying the Senate.

Newsom has claimed that “it would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away,” said Newsom. “I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

Rep. Barbara Lee is the only Black candidate with a real chance to replace Feinstein.  Her campaign for Feinstein’s senate seat has been underway for months and she released the following statement condemning Newsom’s comments.

“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,” stated Lee.

“Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”

This is one of the most critical moments in Governor Gavin Newsom’s political career.  He is widely rumored to be considering a run for the Presidency in 2028 and it will be interesting to see how he chooses to navigate the political landscape between “promise and pacification.”

Black voters will be watching!