U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s serious health struggles — she is often wheelchair bound, suffered a brain illness, and often seems disoriented after her multi-month hospital stay — have quietly raised a political question behind Democratic Party closed doors: Who should California Gov. Gavin Newsom pick to replace her?
Despite calls from within her own party to resign, Feinstein, who turns 90 next month and is the oldest member of Congress, has given no indication that she is considering stepping down.
Her frail appearance, confused interactions with reporters in Washington, and the growing list of health challenges disclosed by her office continue to fan questions about her fitness for the job — now and into the future.
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A range of names, from obscure to famous — including Oprah Winfrey — have been floated in California circles as possible replacements. Newsom, who is mentioned as a possible future presidential contender, would also have to deal with political complexities, some of his own making: In 2021 he promised to appoint a Black woman should Feinstein’s seat become open.
Meanwhile, a 2024 Senate campaign is underway to fill the seat when the senator’s term ends in January 2025.
Much of the truth behind Feinstein’s condition remains hush-hush; critics have speculated that it could be elder abuse by her staff.
Feinstein returned to the Senate on May 10 — about 10 weeks after being hospitalized in San Francisco. On her return to the Capitol, she was markedly thinner and one side of her face was drooping, apparently from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, which can occur when the shingles virus reaches a facial nerve near the ears. It also can cause hearing loss.
Her aides confirmed that Feinstein also suffered a brain illness during her hospitalization.
On the advice of doctors, Feinstein’s staff say she is working a lighter schedule as she deals with side effects from the virus, including vision and balance problems. She has been using a wheelchair to get to her office and committee meetings.
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Questions have been raised in recent years about Feinstein’s memory and mental acuity. Since her return to Washington, she has at times appeared confused during brief discussions with reporters.
Newsom has promised that if Feinstein’s seat became vacant, he would choose a Black woman to replace her. Should Feinstein resign, he’ll be expected to make good on the promise.
“He made the commitment and I do not believe there is any wiggle room for the governor not to honor his commitment,” said Kerman Maddox, a Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist and fundraiser who is Black.
Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney pointed out that any presidential ambitions that Newsom might harbor would be damaged if he backed away from his promise to name a Black woman, noting that the candidate favored by Black voters has won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination for every cycle since 1992.
In filling a Senate vacancy, Newsom has the authority to name a successor. He could even pick himself, though that is unlikely. State rules dictate when an election would have to be held.
Newsom’s choices all run risks.
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He could get entangled in the ongoing Senate campaign and choose one of the declared candidates to fill a Feinstein vacancy.
Another option would be to select a caretaker, and then leave it to voters to decide in next year’s election — someone who would hold the seat but is not a Senate candidate. That’s where names like Winfrey come up — a celebrity who is Black and happens to meet Newsom’s appointment pledge. However, Newsom also might find it challenging to land on someone willing to take a short-term appointment.
If he picked one of the declared Senate candidates, Newsom would unsettle the growing field and elevate that person to frontrunner status. U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, who is Black, is already running against fellow Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff, who both are white.
Lee “is far and away the most qualified African American woman to replace Sen. Feinstein if a vacancy becomes available,” Maddox said.
The infighting to replace Feinstein has already begun, Newsom confirmed in a recent interview with Fox 11 TV in Los Angeles. He said was being swamped with recommendations for how to fill Feinstein’s seat.
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“I get it. For those who say, ‘Enough of Newsom making these picks!’ I get it. I’m with you. I understand,” he said.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article