With immediate political implications, the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein has placed a spotlight on California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s pledge to appoint a Black woman if there was ever a Senate vacancy.
Feinstein died Thursday, Sept. 28, at the age of 90 following more than three decades on Capitol Hill as the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate. The cause of her death was not immediately reported, but her health had come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, during which time she had missed dozens of votes.
Some of that scrutiny led to speculation about her future in the Senate that ultimately prompted Newsom in May to publicly pledge to fill Feinstein’s seat, if necessary, on an interim basis with a Black woman. Feinstein had already announced she would not seek reelection next year.
After the election of then-California Sen. Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States in 2020, Newsom filled her seat by nominating Alex Padilla, who became the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate. But that nomination also left the same U.S. Senate without a Black woman – a truth that has lingered for more than three years now – which is partially why Newsom said he would nominate a Black woman should another Senate vacancy arise.
In 2021 during an interview on MSNBC, Newsom was asked directly if he would nominate a Black woman if he had the opportunity.
“The answer is yes,” Newsom replied.
Fast forward to September 2023 and notable U.S. Congressmembers – including Rep. Barbara Lee, a Black woman – are among the candidates campaigning to fill Feinstein’s seat in the general election next year.
That’s likely why Newsom, just weeks ago, clarified that not only would he make an “interim appointment” of a Black woman for any Senate vacancy but that person would not be a current candidate for Feinstein’s seat.
Newsom’s response was “insulting,” Lee said.
“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 responded. “Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”
Also responding to Newsom’s comments, Glynda C. Carr, President and CEO of Higher Heights, offered a similar sentiment as Lee’s.
“The sentiments of Gov. Newsom are a slap in the face to the Black women making the progress this country needs,” Carr said in a recent email to NewsOne. “The perspective of Black women in the U.S. Senate is sorely needed — and needed for more than a few months. Gov. Newsom knows this, which is why he made the pledge in the first place.”
Newsom’s appointment of Padilla was also seen as him thumbing his nose at the Black Lives Matter movement, which called for a Black woman to fill Harris’ seat in a “non-negotiable” demand that emphasized why Senate representation by an African American woman is so important.
Newsom’s choice seemingly reinforced the common political and patriarchal narrative that men get to decide that women must wait patiently for their turns at the back of the line. The fact that the decision was made by a white man, in particular, only hammered home that point even more. While Harris decidedly shattered the glass ceiling back in 2017 when she became just the second Black woman senator in the United States’ history, Newsom at least partially rebuilt it Tuesday, critics suggested.
At the time, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Black woman, made no qualms about her true feelings on the “unfortunate” matter.
“This is a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general, and I think it’s really challenging to put it in words,” Breed, the city’s first Black woman mayor, told the Associated Press.
The Black Lives Matter movement previously posted an online petition explaining why it was so important for Newsom to appoint a Black woman, in particular.
“Appointing a Black woman to this seat is nonnegotiable — this must be done. Our government is about representation of the people, and as we saw in this election, Black people, and more specifically Black women, are constantly showing up for democracy,” the group said in part of a statement accompanied with the petition. “If there is not a single Black woman in the Senate, then the Senate is simply not a proper representation of the people.”
There are currently just two Black U.S. Senators: Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.
This is a developing story that will be updated.
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