Feinstein’s health has Newsom in a political trap of his own making

This story appeared in Calmatters

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is flanked by aides as she returns to the Senate Judiciary Committee following a more than two-month absence as she was being treated for a case of shingles, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, May 11, 2023. Feinstein’s office said Thursday, May 18, that she is suffering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication from the shingles virus that can paralyze part of the face, and that she contracted encephalitis while recovering from the virus earlier this year. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, AP Photo

In summary

After suffering a bout of shingles, Dianne Feinstein’s return to the Senate did not stop the calls for her resignation, which would create a huge political problem for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Whither Dianne Feinstein?

Feinstein, a fixture of California politics for more than a half-century and a U.S. senator for three decades, recently returned to the Capitol after a weeks-long battle with shingles, a very debilitating disease.

One might have thought that her return, after much carping from those on the Democratic Party’s left wing about her absence, would quiet those who wanted her to resign.

However, the critics didn’t miss a beat. They could no longer complain that she was AWOL and thus inhibiting the party’s ability to advance an agenda in the closely divided Senate. But they continued the drumbeat, citing the obvious fact that age (she’s 89) and the lingering effects of shingles have worsened the decline of her cognitive abilities.

Feinstein’s impairment has virtually no effect on the Senate’s operations. As long as she is alive and can an answer the roll call, President Joe Biden and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer can do whatever they would be able to do with any other Democrat occupying one of California’s Senate seats.

The continuing demands for her resignation – which she steadfastly insists will not happen – aren’t really about her cognition, but rather her somewhat centrist position on the ideological scale.

Feinstein has already said she won’t seek another Senate term next year and her successor will be another Democrat, but what kind of Democrat is somewhat uncertain. Three major contenders, all members of Congress, are already campaigning and none has emerged as the clear frontrunner.

The progressive left would prefer Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland or, perhaps, Rep. Katie Porter of Orange County. Progressives don’t want Rep. Adam Schiff of Los Angeles, who’s had centrist leanings in the past but is now trying, with little apparent success, to rebrand himself as a progressive.

Lee seems to be trailing Porter and Schiff and if it’s a three-way battle, the two women could split the progressive vote and thus give Schiff a better chance of winning. So the progressives want a Feinstein resignation that would, they hope, result in Lee being appointed to the seat by Gov. Gavin Newsom.

That hope hinges on something that Newsom – rather foolishly – said two years ago after appointing Alex Padilla to California’s other Senate seat, replacing Kamala Harris once she became vice president.

Newsom took heat from Black political figures for not naming a Black woman to replace Harris, who identified as Black and South Asian. He attempted to cool off the criticism by naming a Black woman, San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, as Padilla’s successor as secretary of state. However, as the critics persisted, Newsom pledged on a national television to appoint a Black woman to succeed Feinstein if she resigned.

That pledge – essentially a throwaway line to get off the political hook – could now bite back if, in fact, Feinstein were to resign. Newsom would be pressed to put Lee in the Senate, thus giving her a huge advantage to win a full term next year. He would also be hammered for interfering in the election.

Newsom surely hopes that Feinstein, even impaired, serves out her term. But were she to resign, as those on the left demand, he would face some difficult options. He could appoint Lee, bypass Lee and appoint another Black woman, such as San Francisco Mayor London Breed, who would run for a full term. Or, he could name someone else as a caretaker who would not seek a whole term.

Each option is fraught, given that the campaign to succeed Feinstein is already underway. Newsom is potentially caught in a no-win political trap of his own making.

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