Back in the 1980s, a favorite pastime for political journalists in the nation’s capital was monitoring Edward Kennedy’s weight fluctuations—if the late Massachusetts senator suddenly took a couple of inches off his waistline, the assumption was that he did so in preparation for a presidential run.

Actually, reporters weren’t the only political stalwarts who took notice of Kennedy’s extra baggage, as it were. As Richard Nixon observed when asked what it would take for Kennedy to knock off Ronald Reagan: “He’s got to lose 20 pounds. He also has got to enter the ’80s rather than the ’60s. He’s got to get some new ideas.”


Kennedy’s “weighty” concerns came to mind when gossip emerged that Governor Gavin Newsom might appoint the media mogul Oprah Winfrey as an interim US senator should Dianne Feinstein decide to step down from her post before her term ends after the November 2024 election. The nexus: the speculation that Newsom might look Oprah’s way coincided with the emergence of a thinner Winfrey.

But fat chance such a scenario would ever play out—not after Winfrey’s spokeswoman shot down the “Senator Oprah” trial balloon in less time than it took for the Chinese spy dirigible to traverse North America.

The Winfrey what-if shows Newsom’s limited options in the event that Feinstein—who turns 90 later this month and returned to Washington in May visibly frail after a prolonged absence due to a bout with shingles—decides to retire early from a job she’s held for the past three decades.

The question of Feinstein’s future likely won’t ease up anytime soon —at least, not after another round of bad press last weekend capped by this New York Times account claiming that, a year ago, she was confused by the presence of Vice President Kamala Harris (Feinstein’s former Senate colleague) presiding over the chamber in Harris’s tie-breaking capacity (“What is she doing here?,” Feinstein reportedly asked a fellow senator).

Indeed, were it not for Newsom’s past declaration that he’d choose a Black woman as “placeholder” senator, California’s governor would have plenty of options.

For starters, Newsom could handle the delicate matter as deviously as did the Kennedys when that political dynasty had to figure how to keep a Massachusetts US Senate seat in friendly hands until Ted Kennedy was constitutionally old enough to serve in Washington (the youngest of the fabled Kennedy brothers turned 29, one year shy of the Senate minimum, one month after his brother entered the White House).

In the aftermath of 1960’s presidential election, John F. Kennedy’s victory meant resigning his Senate seat, with a gubernatorial appointee stepping in until a special election would be held in November 1962 (by which time a 30-year-old Ted Kennedy would be old enough to run for his brother’s seat).

The Kennedys’ choice for a seat-warmer: Benjamin Smith, who likely earned the plum appointment not based upon his political credentials (mayor of Gloucester in the mid-1950s) but instead on his ties to the incoming president (Smith was JFK’s roommate at Harvard and an usher at his wedding).

Would Newsom dare to award a Senate appointment to a college buddy or member of his wedding party?

Probably not.

But California’s governor would have some quality choices if he hadn’t applied race and gender prequalifiers to possible choices for a Senate placeholder.

Leon Panetta comes to mind (name another freshman senator who could list former defense secretary, White House chief of staff, and budget director on their resume). But Panetta wouldn’t qualify for obvious reasons.

Another option also eliminated: former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (right gender, wrong race). She and Feinstein are Pacific Heights neighbors and then some (Pelosi’s eldest daughter has been tending to the needs of the ailing senator). Besides, should Pelosi decide to call it a career after November 2024 (she’ll be 84 by then), a year in the Senate would make for a unique finish to another storied political resume.

But these aren’t viable options for Newsom. Just as another possible seat-filler, congresswoman Barbara Lee, likely wouldn’t make the cut because of messy internal Democratic politics.

While Lee is Black, she’s also one of three Democratic members of Congress competing in California’s March Senate primary. One of those other two House Democrats, Adam Schiff, is backed by Pelosi. When news broke that Pelosi’s daughter was watching over Feinstein, speculation grew that it was part of a Pelosi strategy to convince Feinstein to stay in the Senate and serve out her term—i.e., prevent a scenario in which Newsom appointed Lee to the Senate and gave her a leg up in a hotly contested primary (here’s some recent polling data on that contest showing Lee trailing her two fellow Democrats).

So what would Newsom do if forced to come up with an interim replacement for Feinstein?

Newsom could reach out to any of the following Democratic officeholders: Los Angeles mayor Karen Bass, San Francisco mayor London Breed, state controller Malia Cohen, Los Angeles County supervisor Holly Mitchell, or secretary of state Shirley Weber.

I’ll add one more name to the mix: Nadine Harris, appointed by Newsom in 2019 to become the first woman of color to serve as California’s surgeon general.

But again, the politics are messy. Breed is up for reelection next year. If she departed for Washington, an already struggling San Francisco would have to cope without a seasoned mayor in place.

As for Bass, she’s less than a year into her mayoral term. Besides, she may not be in a hurry to do Newsom any favors—not after Newsom refused to endorse her in last year’s mayoral election.

You may have noticed that there’s one name missing from this and most other lists of prominent Californians who meet Newsom’s criteria. This individual just happens to live about two miles west of Oprah Winfrey in the exclusive confines of Montecito. Aside from her storybook marriage, her biggest moment in the media spotlight was arguably her sit-down interview with Oprah two years ago.

What else is there to know about this potential placeholder? Though not a Kennedy, she’s connected to different kind of dynasty. She’s been honored by the NAACP for her “distinguished public service.” And she’s been known to dabble in American politics and public policy, be it cold-calling Republicans senator to pitch paid family leave or lending her voice to net-zero carbon goals and equitable vaccine distributions.

Could a governor who’s painted himself into a corner find his salvation in . . . Senator Meghan Markle?

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