Oprah Winfrey could become a pawn in a game of political chess, according to published reports.
Winfrey’s name has arisen in discussions of a possible replacement for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.
Feinstein, 89, has said she will retire at the end of her term in 2024.
However, her condition upon her return to the Senate this month after a lengthy absence for health reasons increased the buzz that her physical and mental status might preclude her from remaining in the Senate that long, according to The Associated Press.
California law allows Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint anyone he wants to fill the position for the rest of the term should Feinstein step aside. However, because Newsom has promised that a black woman would fill Feinstein’s slot if she were to retire, that limits his choices.
“He made the commitment, and I do not believe there is any wiggle room for the governor not to honor his commitment,” said Kerman Maddox, a black Los Angeles-based Democratic strategist and fundraiser.
“Newsom must honor his promise to appoint a black woman. I trust him at his word. We currently have zero black women in the Senate, so if the opportunity becomes available the governor must act to help remedy this lack of representation,” said Democratic state Assemblywoman Lori Wilson, who heads the Legislative Black Caucus.
Simple. But not so simple.
Three Democratic members of Congress have announced their plans to seek Feinstein’s seat and will face off in a March 2024 primary — Rep. Barbara Lee, who is black; Rep. Katie Porter, who is white; and Rep. Adam Schiff, who is white.
Although it is a common practice for governors to appoint lawmakers who will then turn around and campaign for the seat, in this case, if Newsom picked from that pool and adhered to his promise, he would be boosting Lee over the other two candidates — possibly causing a rift in his party.
And that brings Newsom to a list of what the AP called “caretakers” — black women who would fill the spot and not complicate his political relationships.
Winfrey is not the only name on the media’s list of possible picks, but many of the others have baggage.
The Washington Examiner dropped the names of San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins and Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass but said Bass and Jenkins are so new to their jobs they might not want to give them up for a few months in the Senate.
Election adviser Stan Taney noted that many black women in California politics might not bow out once installed in the Senate, according to the California Globe.
Taney said Newsom “put himself in a corner after promising a female black Senator should Feinstein go. There’s only so many who are qualified in California.”
“Winfrey has been known to be political and outspoken on issues, plus she is popular with many people,” he said.
Leadership is about empathy. It’s about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives. And @staceyabrams is exactly the type of leader we need to guide the people of Georgia. pic.twitter.com/o6Acn8A3xo
— Oprah Winfrey (@Oprah) October 19, 2022
“Lawmaker material?” he said. “Eh, remains to be seen. But she is known, is liked, does know about many subjects, college grad, and would likely agree to only serve out the term.
“You really can’t call her the best candidate, but you can also do worse. If she is picked, it would make front page news. I mean, come on, Senator Oprah? I mean, there has been Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger, so this would be very on brand for California.”
Taney added, “But, when you look at the entire landscape, Newsom needs a good pick. Someone who will only serve for a few years and not run in 2024, and someone who won’t embarrass him and hurt his chances for future office.
“Oprah is an interesting pick, to say the least, as a potential candidate, but you need to have a good list to choose from before picking the 69-year-old billionaire who once gave her entire audience free cars.”
Terry Schilling, president of conservative think tank the American Principles Project, voiced his disgust with the identity politics of the process, according to the U.K.’s Daily Mail.
“Whether or not Oprah is qualified to serve as a senator is up for debate,” he said. “But what shouldn’t be debatable is that the people of California, just like any other state, deserve the best person possible representing them, not someone whose chief qualification is their sex and skin color.”
Jerry Roberts, who wrote a biography of Feinstein, said the entire debate assumes a woman who has battled all sides through her political career will meekly enter the shadows, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Feinstein has “a belief in herself to the point of stubbornness, where nobody is going to tell her what she can or cannot do. She has tremendous belief and confidence in her own strength and her own ability,” he said.
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