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Opinion By retiring, Feinstein can make history one more time

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) at the Capitol on May 3. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
5 min

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has not announced whether she will run for a sixth full term, but the 89-year-old already has competition — from her own party. Rep. Katie Porter is running. So is Rep. Adam B. Schiff. And Rep. Barbara Lee has told colleagues she intends to run. This promises to be a fierce campaign that could result in an ignoble end to Feinstein’s legendary career.

But there is a way out for Feinstein that would also allow her to help make history. She could resign the seat now and allow Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to fulfill his promise to appoint a Black woman to succeed her.

“We have multiple names in mind — and the answer is yes,” Newsom pledged last year to MSNBC’s Joy Reid. Newsom’s office and a source close to him told me the commitment stands. The name at the top of the list should be Lee.

While Feinstein has said that she would “probably” make her plans known by this spring, let me herald her tenure now. She has been a fixture in California politics since her election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1969, becoming its first female president. In 1978, she became the city’s acting mayor after the assassination of Mayor George Moscone. Feinstein was elected mayor in 1979 — the first woman in city history to hold the office.

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There was more history to be made. In 1992, Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were elected to the Senate — the first time women held both seats from the same state. But Feinstein became California’s first female senator by being sworn in early to complete the final days of a retired male senator’s unfinished term.

In Washington, she has really made her mark. Feinstein has chaired both the Intelligence Committee and the Rules and Administration Committee — positions of particular distinction reserved for the Senate’s more substantive members. Among her many legislative achievements, authoring the assault weapons ban of 1994 is perhaps her greatest.

Today, Feinstein is the oldest sitting senator and the longest-serving female senator in history. But she is only a few months older than Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who just won an eighth term. But Washington is full of stories raising doubt about Feinstein’s mental fitness for office. That’s why fellow Democrats are daring to challenge this pillar of the party, and why Feinstein’s greatest admirers are among those praying that she will avoid the potentially humiliating experience of a legacy-tarnishing campaign.

By resigning to enjoy the acclaim she has earned, Feinstein would pave the way for only the third Black female senator. Which brings me back to Lee, who came of political age working on the 1972 presidential campaign of Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black person to seek the nomination for president from one of the two major political parties.

Lee served in the California legislature before winning a congressional seat in 1998. The quest for peace and equity has been the hallmark of her tenure. From seats on the powerful Appropriations and Budget committees, she looks out for underserved communities. She has been a chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

More important, Lee has been willing to take a principled stand, even when it means standing alone. That’s exactly what happened in 2001, when she was the only member of Congress to vote against authorizing military force in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Her fear that military action would “spiral out of control” proved prescient.

Only 11 African Americans have served in the Senate, two of them Black women. This constituency is a vital force in the Democratic Party, but its inclusion at the table of power remains a frustrating work in progress. In 2019, I interviewed Stacey Abrams at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. Then-Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who was one of those two Black women, had just ended her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. In that context, Abrams said something that has stuck with me ever since.

“[Black women] are the victims of almost every perfidy exposed by our party, by our communities, by our nation,” Abrams said. “We are the canaries who have lived in the coal mine, built a nest there. We are the ones [who] will know first” when America falls short of its principles. And because of that, she continued: “It makes no sense that we are not also your front-line army, not just as your voters, but as your leaders, as your harbingers of what’s possible.”

The Senate would benefit from such a harbinger whose lived experience gives her the wisdom to focus on what’s important to her state and our nation. By resigning and allowing Newsom to fulfill his promise, Feinstein could pave the way for Lee to be that person.