Gavin Newsom vowed to appoint a Black woman to the Senate. Here’s who could replace Dianne Feinstein

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In 2021, after he named then-California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed that if he had to make another Senatorial appointment it would be a Black woman.

Following Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s death on Thursday, Newsom’s promise shifted from hypothetical to real and hugely consequential.

And recent comments he made to Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” made the decision even more politically charged. He said he’d appoint a Black woman, but only as an interim Senator before California voters elect Feinstein’s replacement in 2024.

“It would be essentially a caretaker — an African American woman?” Todd asked Newsom earlier this month.

“We hope we never have to make this decision,” Newsom replied, “but I abide by what I’ve said very publicly on a consistent basis. Yes.”

That drew major pushback from Black women politicians across the state, most notably Senate candidate Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland.

“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 wrote on Twitter after the interview.

When Newsom made his initial pledge in a 2021 interview with MSNBC’s Joy Reid, he said he had a few names in mind.

But Lee’s comments put whoever Newsom seeks to fill the opening in a complicated position: abandon their current role to serve for less than a year-and-a-half in the U.S. Senate, and only in a “caretaker” position that Lee has condemned as insulting.

Nevertheless, here are some of the women Newsom may consider to replace Feinstein.

Rep. Barbara Lee

Lee remains perhaps the most obvious choice, although she would certainly would not accept a caretaker appointment and would remain a candidate for a full term.

The Bay Area progressive launched her 2024 Senate campaign in February, joining House colleagues Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter. Lee, 77, stands apart not just because of her race — and her Bay Area bonafides, which would please Northern California voters — but because of her long history of sticking to her progressive guns.

Lee was the sole member of Congress in 2001 to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force that launched the years-long war in Iraq. A single mom and the recipient of a back-alley abortion in Mexico in the 1960s, she has been an outspoken supporter of policies that directly affect women’s health and safety, including abortion access and Black maternal health care.

She supports repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to cover abortion procedures.

“For nearly four decades, I’ve been working to end this racist and discriminatory amendment,” Lee said in 2021. “Even as a staffer in Congress when it first became law.”

She has also spoken publicly about her own abortion experience.

“A lot of girls and women in my generation died from unsafe abortions,” Lee said in a House Oversight Committee in 2021.

“My personal experience shaped my beliefs to fight for people’s reproductive freedom.”

Lee, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, served as the Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2009-2011 after four years as Co-Chair.

She was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and sits on the Medicare For All Caucus, citing her time as a social worker in the Bay Area in the 1970s for her stance on single-payer healthcare.

Secretary of State Shirley Weber

When Newsom was tasked with replacing Padilla after naming him to replace Harris, he chose then-Assemblymember Shirley Weber, of San Diego — the first Black person to ever hold the position.

“On the eve of Black History Month, California once again makes history in swearing in Dr. Weber as Secretary of State,” Newsom said upon her appointment in January 2021.

“As the state’s Chief Elections Officer, Dr. Weber will continue her lifelong dedication to defending civil rights and will undertake a vital role in protecting our democratic process at a critical time.”

Weber, like Lee, is a progressive. Before her appointment to Secretary of State, she was the first Black woman elected to the legislature south of Los Angeles. She won a seat in 2012 to represent Assembly District 79, which covers south San Diego border towns Chula Vista and National City.

Before her time in the legislature, she served on the San Diego County Board of Education.

California Secretary of State Shirley Weber gives a speech on reparations as part of the Green & Gold speaker series in the University Union Ballroom at Sacramento State on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

Born in Arkansas, her family fled to Los Angeles after a white lynch mob threatened her father. Weber became a decorated academic, earning her Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD from UCLA. She was instrumental in launching California’s reparations task force.

Weber, 75, endorsed Lee’s Senate bid in May.

“Time and time again, Barbara Lee has delivered results on the issues that affect Californians most,” Weber said.

“From working to end poverty to standing up for women’s reproductive rights, she’s been a leader for justice for everyone,” said Weber. “I’m proud to endorse her for U.S. Senate.”

Rep. Maxine Waters

Congresswoman Maxine Waters, D-Los Angeles, is another obvious candidate.

Waters, 85, served seven terms in the Assembly, where she represented parts of Los Angeles. She was elected to Congress in 1990, and is the senior most Black woman in Congress. She, like Lee and Bass, chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, and was outspoken against the war in Iraq.

Waters has also built a reputation as an outspoken partisan who does not shrink from conflict.

She marched in the streets of Los Angeles in 1992 after police officers were acquitted for the assault on Rodney King. Whether speaking out against former President Donald Trump — who routinely referred to her Crazy Maxine Waters — or former President Barack Obama, Waters has a reputation for not shying away from verbal spars. During the Trump Administration she became a Democratic icon when she repeatedly said, “Reclaiming my time” in a House Financial Services Committee meeting.

But her politics go beyond media hits and memes.

She’s the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, and cast the deciding vote to pass Obamacare in 2009, though she was still critical of some of its amendments. She is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and a longtime supporter of abortion access, with a 100% rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass

Karen Bass was elected mayor of Los Angeles in 2022, becoming the first woman and second Black person to lead the city. Bass defeated businessman Rick Caruso, despite his record-high campaign spending and unprecedented advertising blitz.

Bass, 69, began her political career in 2004 in the California State Assembly. She was elected speaker in 2008, making her the first Black woman in U.S. history to serve as speaker of a state legislative body. In 2011, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served six terms before becoming mayor.

Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, right, greets Assemblyman John A. Perez , D-Los Angeles before he was sworn in as speaker on Monday, March 1, 2010 at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif..

As a former community organizer and head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Bass made a mark as a leader in racial justice issues in Washington D.C. Bass served in Congress with Lee for over a decade, and earlier this year she endorsed Lee for the U.S. Senate seat.

“I’ve seen her leadership firsthand,” Bass said about Lee in a March tweet.

“Her work in a divided government to secure billions of dollars in COVID relief for underserved communities is just one example of the type of principled and tenacious leadership she will bring to California as our next United States Senator.”

State Controller Malia Cohen

Malia Cohen, 45, was elected in November 2022 as the 33rd Controller of California, the state’s chief fiscal watchdog and accountant. She beat out a Republican who was thought to have the best shot at securing a statewide seat for his party.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, right, high fives an elections worker after dropping off her ballot at City Hall in San Francisco, Tuesday, June 7, 2016. Voter turnout is expected to be higher then normal in the nation’s most populous state for Tuesday’s presidential primary.

As Controller, Cohen is responsible for protecting the state’s financial resources, auditing state spending by governmental agencies and administering the payroll system for thousands of state workers. Cohen, a San Francisco native, began her political career as a field organizer for Newsom’s 2003 mayoral campaign. She went on to serve two terms on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors from 2011 to 2019, overlapping with current San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

She succeeded Breed as president of the Board of Supervisors before getting elected in 2018 to the California State Board of Equalization, an elected commission tasked with tax administration and fee collection.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell

Once called the “queenmaker” of Black California politics, Holly Mitchell, 59, was a Southern California favorite when Newsom had to replace Harris.

Now the beloved representative of about two million Angelenos, Mitchell was elected Supervisor in 2020 after seven years in the state Senate and three years before that in the Assembly, representing various parts of Los Angeles during her years in public service.

She oversaw two state budgets as the first Black woman to serve as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee in 2016, and she shot to the national stage when she authored the CROWN Act, the first legislation of its kind that prohibited discrimination based on hair texture and style in the workplace and in California schools.

On the Board, she’s focused on housing, criminal justice reform, and taking care of her predominantly Black constituents through the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, she said she was “100% happy” with her role in L.A.

Long shot Bay Area picks: Breed, Burke Harris, Simon

It would be a surprise choice for Newsom, but Breed, 49, followed Feinstein’s footsteps by becoming one of the city’s historic firsts: Breed became the first Black woman to be mayor when she was appointed in 2017 after Mayor Ed Lee’s death. Feinstein, in 1978, became the first woman ever elected Mayor.

A former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, kept her seat when she won the June 2018 special election, beating former State Senator Mark Leno.

As mayor she has presided over some of the city’s most difficult years: the COVID-19 pandemic, which all but turned a once-bustling downtown into a ghost town, and the concurrent fentanyl, homelessness, and housing affordability crises.

Caught between satisfying Bay Area progressives and the Silicon Valley tech elite who employ much of the city’s electorate, Breed has had to work hard to hold onto her supporters while tending to the thousands of unsheltered residents.

With San Francisco making headlines for its open-air drug markets and rising crime – scenes politicians on the right have capitalized on to paint the city as an example of failed leftist leadership – Breed would likely not be a popular choice. In fact, she’s shifting further to the right as she takes more and more heat for the city’s decline.

But a Black woman from San Francisco could be a way for Newsom to honor — and build on — Feinstein’s legacy.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, middle, smiles while greeting San Francisco Mayor London Breed, second from left, in front of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, left, and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, right, while walking along a path at the Presidio Tunnel Tops in San Francisco, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022.

There’s also Nadine Burke Harris, 47, who Newsom in 2019 appointed as California’s fiirst-ever surgeon general. Harris stepped down in 2022 to prioritize her family, according to her spokesperson at that time. She is a pediatrician and leading expert on the health effects of childhood trauma.

Congressional candidate Lateefah Simon, 46, with her Bay Area roots, is also someone Newsom could consider.

She is a member of the California State University Board of Trustees and the board of directors for Bay Area Rapid Transit, also known as BART. Simon, who is legally blind, is currently running to replace Lee in Congress.

She previously led a San Francisco initiative to reduce recidivism called Back on Track and serves as executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, a group of attorneys providing legal services to immigrants and people of color in hopes of addressing racial inequality. In 2020, Simon was appointed by Newsom as one of his senior advisors on police reform.

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