Dianne Feinstein, who died Thursday night, will be remembered as a trailblazing politician who always insisted on doing things her way.
It won’t happen, but a fitting tribute to Dianne Feinstein, California’s longest-serving U.S. senator, would be to have someone sing “My Way,” the paean to stubborn individualism made popular in Frank Sinatra’s 1969 recording.
California has never seen a political figure as steadfastly insistent on doing things her way as Feinstein, who died Thursday night at her home in Washington D.C., at age 90.
Mostly, that was a good thing. As a San Francisco supervisor who succeeded George Moscone as mayor when he was assassinated in 1978, as a candidate for governor in 1990 and throughout her three decades in the U.S. Senate, Feinstein prioritized the job at hand, rarely distracted by political gamesmanship.
California has a decades-long tradition of having one senator who makes headlines and one who concentrates on pragmatic duties of representing the state’s interests and doing the nation’s work.
Feinstein was always the latter, a trait that was particularly obvious when the other senators were Barbara Boxer and Kamala Harris. She was the one on whom California interest groups could depend to solve federal issues, and she was equally serious about matters of national importance, such as the CIA’s torture of suspected terrorists and gun control.
The latter was a particularly high priority for Feinstein, who authored the now-defunct federal assault rifle ban.
The strongest evidence of Feinstein’s independence was her stubborn refusal to cater to criticism within her own Democratic Party. When she was running for governor in 1990, for instance, she pointedly reiterated her support for capital punishment in a speech to a state party convention and was met with virtually unanimous boos.
Twenty-eight years later, while running for re-election, another Democratic convention snubbed her and instead endorsed then-state Sen. Kevin de Leon. Later, Feinstein handily defeated de Leon in the 2018 runoff election.
Feinstein’s insistence on doing it her way, despite what others in her party wanted, was on stark display when she began experiencing ill health, lost her husband, Richard Blum, and exhibited symptoms of cognitive decline. Although she finally announced this year that she would not run again in 2024, she stubbornly refused to resign.
The situation is a big headache for Gov. Gavin Newsom – one of his own making– because he must quickly name someone to fill out the remaining 15 months of Feinstein’s term because of the Democrats’ paper-thin Senate majority.
The death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein means that Gov. Newsom has to decide who will fill her seat. He has said he would appoint a caretaker, not one of the three Democrats who are already running.
In 2021, when Harris resigned from the Senate after becoming vice president, Newsom appointed then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill out her term and endured a torrent of criticism for not naming another Black woman to the Senate.
Under fire, Newsom blurted to a television interviewer that if another vacancy occurred – essentially, if Feinstein died or resigned – he would appoint a Black woman. In the meantime, however, one Black woman, Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, declared her candidacy for the Senate and is now running a distant third in the polls to two other Democratic members of Congress, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff.
Were Newsom to appoint Lee, he would be interfering with the election, so he recently declared that he would fill the seat with a Black woman, but only a caretaker who would serve out the term. That angered not only Lee and her supporters but also progressives who want one of their own in Feinstein’s seat.
There are other prominent Black women in California politics, such as Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Secretary of State Shirley Weber. However, it’s unlikely that any of them would give up their positions to put a few months in the Senate on their resumes.
Newsom will name someone but it’s a no-win task he didn’t want.