Dianne Feinstein wished to make a statement.
The former San Francisco mayor was running for California governor and, knowing she would never win the endorsement of the far left, chose instead to stick those activists in the eye.
“Yes, I support the death penalty,” Feinstein told fellow Democrats at the party’s state convention. “It is an issue that cannot be fudged or hedged.”
A chorus of boos sounded like thunder. Feinstein stared straight ahead, unblinking, for nearly 30 seconds as the fury washed over her. (Meantime, cameras rolled to capture the made-for-TV moment, intended to dispel the notion of Feinstein as some kooky San Francisco liberal.)
That was back in 1990. But for some Democrats, the anger never let up.
And now, with Feinstein ailing, some of her ideological foes are hoping to exploit the moment by agitating for the senator’s resignation and replacement with someone more to their liking, which is to say further to the political left.
A favorite is Oakland’s Rep. Barbara Lee, a declared candidate to replace Feinstein — and, it should be noted, not among those calling for the senator to immediately stand aside.
The time may soon come for the 89-year-old Feinstein to call it a career, despite her deep reluctance. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who would pick her replacement, should then resist efforts on the left to hijack the Senate seat by appointing Lee or some other uber-liberal.
He should appoint a caretaker who agrees to finish out Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025, and leave it to voters to sort among several candidates bidding to be her long-term successor.
Feinstein’s decline has been well noted. It’s not cognitive issues, however, but a bad case of shingles that has kept her housebound in California, a continent away from her responsibilities in Washington. Feinstein hasn’t cast a Senate vote since mid-February.
Plenty of senators have been absent for extended periods. Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman, who was just elected in November, spent more than six weeks in the hospital being treated for severe depression. Republican Leader Mitch McConnell returned to the Senate Monday after a six-week recovery from a fall.
Feinstein’s nonattendance has been more acutely felt because of her role on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Without her presence, Democrats have been unable to confirm a backlog of President Biden’s judicial nominees, an important part of his agenda and a high priority for the party given President Trump’s rightward reshaping of the federal courts.
In a concession — the latest, after declining to seek reelection — Feinstein last week asked the Senate’s Democratic leader to appoint a temporary replacement on the committee until she can return to Washington. That, however, requires consent from a significant number of Republicans, which seems quite unlikely.
So Feinstein may face a choice: Head back to Capitol Hill, whatever physical difficulties it entails, or continue being a hindrance to her party and president.
Even those sympathetic to the senator, who smell more than a whiff of ageism and misogyny in calls for her resignation, suggest Feinstein cannot and should not attempt to serve out her term convalescing in San Francisco.
“We are going to need her vote on the Senate floor eventually,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), adding that Feinstein’s return “sure better happen before the debt ceiling vote.”
If Feinstein were to step down, it would present Newsom with a quandary he has largely visited upon himself.
When Sen. Kamala Harris resigned to become vice president, the governor named Alex Padilla as her replacement. Newsom was criticized for failing to appoint a Black woman, filling a void Harris left with her departure and so, in a characteristically rash move, Newsom pledged to do just that if Feinstein were to vacate her seat.
Lee fits the specifications, as a Black woman with deep political experience.
But it’s different now with a hard-fought Senate campaign underway. Irvine Rep. Katie Porter and Burbank’s Adam B. Schiff are both strong contenders for the seat. The governor shouldn’t be substituting his judgment for that of voters by giving an advantage to Lee or any other candidate with the primary election less than a year off.
Feinstein never found favor with the far left. Too conservative, relatively speaking. Too proper and prim.
But for much of her career, she was the most popular politician in California, her positions — such as support for the death penalty — closely aligning with those of the state’s political mainstream.
Even as Feinstein sought reelection in 2018 at age 85, when her infirmity was no secret, she easily turned aside a challenge from the more liberal Kevin de León.
So it’s no coincidence the loudest voices now calling for Feinstein’s ouster are coming from the left, chief among them Rep. Ro Khanna, a Bernie Sanders Democrat and co-chair of Lee’s Senate campaign.
Lee is deeply beloved in her East Bay Area district and greatly respected by Democrats she has served alongside. It’s questionable, though, whether her politics will prove palatable to voters statewide.
When Newsom was fighting an attempted recall, Democrats were quick to condemn it as a power grab and an effort by Republicans to seize an office they would otherwise have a hard time winning under normal circumstances. It’s no different when liberal Democrats try to short-circuit the process.
Lee should make her best case as a candidate for the Senate seat, without intervention from the governor.
Then voters can decide.