Race-based preferences are taking over the competition for Dianne Feinstein’s California Senate seat.
On Thursday, The New York Times revealed Feinstein surrendered power of attorney to her daughter in a report on the 90-year-old senator’s failing health. The longtime legacy lawmaker is unable to make legal decisions of her own while making major legal decisions for the country.
Last week, an episode at a Senate appropriation hearing amplified concerns about Feinstein’s cognitive decline. During a markup of a defense appropriations bill, a confused Feinstein started to deliver a speech on the legislation when committee members were merely voting.
“I would like to support a ‘yes’ vote on this,” Feinstein began before Washington Democrat Sen. Patty Murray, the chair of the committee, interrupted and coached her California colleague to “just say ‘aye.'”
The hearing was just the latest in a string of events escalating calls for Feinstein, an institution in California politics, to relinquish her seat in the upper chamber. Questions surrounding the senator’s age and aptitude to serve have been around since at least 2020 when The New Yorker published an article quoting anonymous aides highlighting concerns about Feinstein’s memory.
“They say her short-term memory has grown so poor that she often forgets she has been briefed on a topic, accusing her staff of failing to do so just after they have,” the magazine reported. “They describe Feinstein as forgetting what she has said and getting upset when she can’t keep up.”
Similar reports followed in the Times and San Francisco Chronicle last year. In February, Feinstein announced she would not seek re-election in 2024. Before she turned 90, Feinstein took a months-long hiatus from the Senate to undergo treatment for shingles. In May, the Times reported she suffered more complications from the virus than were publicly disclosed, “but she remains unwilling to entertain discussions about leaving the Senate.”
Feinstein’s defiance hasn’t slowed down calls from some California Democrats demanding Feinstein’s retirement so they may influence who will be her replacement. If she resigns, Gov. Gavin Newsom has already pledged to appoint a black woman to the seat. Newsom made the commitment in 2021 after upsetting Democrats by appointing then-Secretary of State Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator, to replace Kamala Harris after her election to vice president.
It’s no coincidence, then, the most vocal supporters of Feinstein’s resignation, such as California Rep. Ro Khanna, have endorsed Rep. Barbara Lee in the crowded Senate primary. In fact, Khanna, who co-chairs Lee’s campaign, was the first member of Congress to request Feinstein step down, according to The Hill.
“I’m hopeful that people who are close to her can talk to her and just say, ‘Look, end your service with dignity. Step aside, let the governor appoint someone,” Khanna said.
Lee said in April she would gladly accept the appointment from Newsom.
A Feinstein resignation, however, could spoil the chances of rival candidates to run for an open Senate seat. California Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff has raised nearly $30 million for the campaign, followed by Rep. Katie Porter with more than $10 million, according to the Associated Press. If Feinstein refuses to step down and maintains her seat through 2024, that opens the door for Schiff, a straight white man, to capture the vacancy.