Home>Articles>Rep. Barbara Lee Chastises Gov. Newsom over Decision to Choose A ‘Caretaker Senator’ for Feinstein Seat

U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-13) addressing the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, June 1, 2019. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

Rep. Barbara Lee Chastises Gov. Newsom over Decision to Choose A ‘Caretaker Senator’ for Feinstein Seat

‘Lee has, to put it bluntly, a very snotty attitude about this’

By Evan Symon, September 11, 2023 11:49 am

Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) chastised Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday over his decision to pick a caretaker Senator rather an existing candidate should Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) retire early, prompting many of Lee’s opponents and allies to fire back.

Since 2021, Governor Newsom has said that, should a Senate seat open up in California, the next person he would choose would be a black woman. While this was largely because of the pressure of many black organizations following Newsom choosing to fill in the Senate seat left by Kamala Harris in 2020, then the only woman of color in the Senate, with a Latino choice, Alex Padilla, it has nonetheless stood as the prevailing option. Concerns over Feinstein’s health earlier this year prompted Newsom to confirm once again, that he has a list of potential candidates should Feinstein leave office before her planned exit following the 2024 election.

California Governor Gavin Newsom speaking at the State of the State address in Sacramento, CA, Mar 8, 2022. (Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald/Shutterstock)

While the list has changed somewhat since 2021, Newsom has included prominent black Californian female leaders such as Lee, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, Secretary of State Shirley Weber, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and, at one point, media mogul Oprah Winfrey. Throughout 2023, various people on the list have said that they wouldn’t accept the interim spot if offered, including Bass, Mitchell, and Winfrey, with others stating that they were not too sure. In May, experts even told the Globe that the pick would likely come down to either Breed or Weber, as Newsom would not pick Lee because it would give her an unfair advantage as incumbent in the close 2024 Senate race over other top candidates such as Congressmembers Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Katie Porter (D-CA).

Complicating matters were black leaders including Mayor Bass insisting that Newsom pick Lee should Feinstein resign. Since Feinstein’s health scare earlier this year, Newsom has remained quiet on the issue, not saying who he would or wouldn’t pick for the spot.

However, all of that changed on Sunday. In an interview on “Meet the Press” with Chuck Todd, Gov. Newsom said that he would not choose anyone currently running for the Senate seat, as he wouldn’t want to “tip the balance” in favor of any candidate in the race. Instead, he recommitted to choosing a black woman as a caretaker Senator until the 2024 November election.

“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” said Newsom on Sunday. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that. I stick by my pledge to appoint a Black woman to the seat. We hope we never have to make this decision, but I abide by what I’ve said very publicly on a consistent basis.

“I’m the most subjective human being in the world on this topic. I have no objectivity whatsoever. I’ve known Dianne Feinstein since I was a kid. I interned with her in college. I still have a signed book from my days when she was mayor. I don’t want to make another appointment, and I don’t think the people of California want me to make another appointment. I’ve made plenty of appointments. But it’s my job, it’s my responsibility. If we have to do it, we’ll do it.”

Lee responds

Newsom’s response infuriated Lee, who responded later on Sunday in a letter.

“I am troubled by the governor’s remarks,” said Lee. “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. The perspective of Black women in the U.S. Senate is sorely needed — and needed for more than a few months. Governor Newsom knows this, which is why he made the pledge in the first place.”

“If the Governor intends to keep his promise and appoint a Black woman to the Senate, the people of California deserve the best possible person for that job. Not a token appointment. Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”

However, Lee was soon chastised for these remarks from both opponents and allies alike on Sunday and Monday. Many said that she felt “entitled” to the opening because she is among the most senior black lawmakers in California. Others expressed that since she is now trailing both Schiff and Porter in polls by double digits, coming in as interim Senator could give her campaign the needed kick to pull off a top-two primary finish in March.

“Lee has, to put it bluntly, a very snotty attitude about this,” said Washington-based election advisor Stan Taney in an interview with the Globe. “Newsom said some troubling things in the interview. But he was dead on about how he shouldn’t get involved in the race. He’s not endorsing anyone and he doesn’t want to give an unfair advantage to anyone. And now Lee is saying that this is unfair.”

“Lee is just desperate for any traction at this point. Look at the latest poll. She is behind one Republican and tied with another for fourth place with another. Getting to be an interim Senator and getting that incumbent status was her last real hope here barring some major scandal with Schiff or Porter, or the GOP coming out with a big split-vote win. She does hold key power in the form of an endorsement. If she is out after the primary, and the race is between Schiff and Porter, suddenly her pull is a must have for both of them.”

“But for what happened. Newsom gave a reasonable decision to be on the sidelines of the Senate race, at least for as long as the primary in March, and Lee drilled him because she really needed that interim seat should Feinstein go to get momentum back.”

In a response directly from the Governor’s office, Newsom spokesman Anthony York said, “Lee is venting over a hypothetical on top of a hypothetical. There is no vacancy for any US Senate seat, nor does the Governor anticipate there will be one. Voters will have their say on who should replace Senator Feinstein when they go to the polls less than six months from now.”

The Senate primary race is to be held on March 5, 2024.

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