LOS ANGELES — California Governor Gavin Newsom may soon earn the rare honor of selecting his state’s two senators — but he’s not happy with the prospect, according to those close to him.
As 89-year-old Senator Dianne Feinstein charts an uncertain path in Washington after returning to work following a health issue, the struggle over whether she should stay and the fate of the Senate seat that it still occupies has turned into an ugly proxy war. in California between the three top Democrats vying to replace her, with Newsom stuck in the middle.
Feinstein has already announced that she intends to retire at the end of her term next year, setting up a crowded primary fight. But if she were to vacate the seat before then, Newsom would have to appoint someone to complete the term – a selection that would be seen as tipping the balance in the primary.
Two years ago, after choosing Senator Alex Padilla to fill an empty seat, Newsom promised on MSNBC to select a black woman for any future vacancy, which was widely understood as a nod to Rep. Barbara Lee.
That, however, was before Lee jumped into the Senate race, before powerful Democrats like former Speaker Nancy Pelosi went all-in for one of her rivals, Rep. Adam Schiff, and before some of Newsom’s own allies don’t get to work for the third candidate in the race, Rep. Katie Porter.
“Newsom always says he hates these [appointments]said a California Democratic strategist who granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s about how you make one person temporarily happy and piss off a million others. I didn’t really believe it on the others, but I believe it on this one.
“Any decision pisses off someone important,” the strategist added. “There are more cons than pros in just about everything you do.”
Newsom, who is under pressure for the Senate seat everywhere he goes, is sure to be inundated with opinions when he attends the California Democratic Party convention in Los Angeles this weekend, which will bring together thousands of delegates, activists and eminences from across the massive state. .
“Emails, calls, texts, people stop me. I mean it,” Newsom said in a local television interview this month lobbying efforts on the seat of the Senate – which, to be clear, remains occupied. “It’s one of the biggest topics here and it was one of the biggest topics when I was in Alabama, even in Jackson, Mississippi.”
Three years after appointing Padilla – when Kamala Harris left the seat to become vice-president – he understands why people fear he will do it again.
“For those saying, enough Newsom making those choices – I get it, I’m with you!” Newsom said.
Newsom’s decision to select Padilla was far less controversial, but nonetheless frustrated by powerful black Democrats – key allies the ambitious governor does not want to alienate as he considers a potential future presidential campaign.
The California Democratic Party’s Black Caucus was “incredibly hurt and disappointed by the governor’s decision” to replace the only black woman in the Senate with a Latino, group chair Taisha Brown said at the time. “With the stroke of a pen, her actions denied black female representation in the United States Senate.”
This time the stakes are even higher.
Many black Democrats are doing everything they can to push Newsom to keep his promise to nominate a black woman, by which they usually mean Lee.
But other California Democrats, especially those allied with Schiff or Porter, insist just as much otherwise.
They argue that Newsom would unfairly put his thumb on the primary ladder by elevating Lee, giving the lesser-known Oakland lawmaker a critical boost in statewide name recognition and incumbent power. .
Meanwhile, Newsom’s kitchen cabinet of outside political advisers is split between the three candidates, making it difficult for him to fully trust their advice. A former spokesperson works for Porter, another runs a super PAC supporting Lee, and the powerful firm run by Newsom’s consultants runs a pro-Schiff super PAC.
Many party insiders are now wondering if Newsom regrets making his promise before the race kicked off, but Rusty Hicks, the chairman of the California Democratic Party, said: “I have no doubt that Governor will honor its commitments.”
Some have floated other ideas to try to defuse the situation. What about a different black woman? Or a caretaker, like former Senator Barbara Boxer?
“I saw Barbara recently and I can’t imagine her being okay with it. She’s loving her semi-retired life in Palm Springs! She and Stewart were happy and thriving,” the former campaign manager said. of Boxer, Rose Kapolczynski.
And Newsom has seen firsthand that goalies can’t necessarily be relied on to stay in their assigned role.
When Newsom was elected lieutenant governor in 2010, he paved the way for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to replace him as mayor with a caretaker, Ed Lee, who had promised not to run in the next election. The following year, Lee changed his mind and ran for and won a full term as mayor of the city.
Sure, there are plenty of other qualified black women in California, but Lee’s allies are trying to enforce solidarity on her behalf.
“It will be very difficult to find a black woman to fill this seat as a nomination when she knows that the only reason she is nominated is simply to prevent another black woman from occupying this seat long term” , said Amar Shergill, the chairman of the California Progressive Caucus and a strong supporter of Lee. “So the pressure is on to make sure that never happens.”
Meanwhile, the backstage sniping got meaner.
Lee’s supporters accuse Schiff and his so-called “establishment” allies like Pelosi of manipulating ailing Feinstein into staying in power in order to block Lee, which they have denied. Pelosi says she just wants to let Feinstein make his own decision, seeing sexism push to force her into retirement. Feinstein’s allies have pointed to men with similar health conditions who have not been kicked out of the Senate.
Feinstein’s standing with Californians continues to deteriorate as questions mount about his physical and cognitive health.
Two-thirds of registered voters agree that she is “no longer fit to continue serving in the U.S. Senate,” according to a new poll from the Institute for Government Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Only 27% said she should stay on.
But voters were split on whether they wanted Newsom to make an appointment to replace her and whether she should somehow be forced to step down.
“The poll clearly shows that while support for Sen. Feinstein has dropped significantly since 2018, there is no clear consensus on how the process should unfold,” said survey co-director G. Cristina Mora.
Inside the cavernous Los Angeles Convention Center, party faithful were equally divided on how to handle the situation, with even some Feinstein critics resigned to the fact that the path of least resistance might be for her to stay.
Jacob Rodriguez, a 23-year-old delegate from Imperial County, was considering introducing a resolution that would “diplomatically” ask Feinstein to step down.
He knows it’s long and would probably only be symbolic, but he said it’s high time someone younger took over. “It sounds nasty, but it’s a chamber that takes care of the whole country. They should all be sane,” Rodriguez said.
But Charlene Lefaive, 71, and Sherry Chavarría, 66, delegates from Tulare County in the central California agricultural belt, said Feinstein shouldn’t be going anywhere.
“Taking a person and judging them based on their health issues is absolutely awful,” Lefaive said.
“She’s wonderful,” added Chavarría. “We still need her.”
This article originally appeared on NBCNews.com