(CNN) — As California Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped on stage at the state Democratic Party Convention this weekend, Vilma Dawson applauded with the visible faith of someone who had supported him through multiple elections and a recall campaign.
Dawson does not expect her loyalty to Newsom will be tested in a politically fraught decision that may lie ahead – selecting a successor to fill the seat of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, should the 89-year-old, who has already announced she’s not running for reelection in 2024, resign before the end of her term.
“I’m sure Governor Newsom has a plan to appoint an African American female,” said Dawson. Pausing to consider her words, she continued, “I don’t think the governorship is where he’s going to stop his political career. People have long memories as to whether they can trust someone to support, shall we say, promises that they made.”
In 2021, Newsom had said, “The answer is yes,” when asked on MSNBC if he would nominate a Black woman for Feinstein’s seat.
After Feinstein was absent from the Senate for months due to a shingles diagnosis that resulted in complications of Ramsay Hunt syndrome and encephalitis, California Democrats gathered for their state convention with her health top of mind.
“We do believe that Governor Newsom will keep his promise. We have known him to be a man of his word,” said Kimberly Ellis, a Democratic strategist and activist in California.
Ellis is part of an effort by Democratic Black women lobbying Newsom on the Senate choice, should he have to make it. Ellis described the effort as “putting our shoulder to the wheel – really trying to ensure that we get the best qualified person to lead us at this moment in time.”
Two Black women have served in the US Senate – Carol Moseley Braun, who served from 1993 to 1996, and Kamala Harris, who left to join the Biden administration as vice president. Currently, there are no Black women senators.
Citing battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Ellis said, “Black women are the margin of victory. We get it done. [Newsom] knows that just like many in the country know that. And so, we have no doubt that he will indeed appoint a Black woman. The only question that’s on the table is which Black woman.”
Ellis thinks Rep. Barbara Lee should be first on Newsom’s list, calling her sentiment “Barbara or bust.”
Lee has already declared her candidacy for the seat in 2024.
Greeting supporters at her booth at the party convention meeting, Lee said her campaign would be fueled by a “multi-generational, multi-racial, progressive coalition.”
Calling the lack of Black women representation in the US Senate “outrageous,” Lee declined to press Newsom on any possible nomination choice. “I’m not going to get involved in his process,” she said. “He made a commitment. But I’m focused on this campaign. I am running to win this election.”
A crowded Democratic field for 2024
But choosing Lee wouldn’t be a simple choice for Newsom. The US Senate race is already underway, with three sitting members of Congress representing various factions of the Democratic Party in the race.
Lee’s rivals include Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter.
Schiff is both a state and nationally known figure as the lead prosecutor in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. He also has been endorsed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose involvement in the Senate race has opened up political intrigue.
Pelosi’s eldest daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, was reported and later pictured around Feinstein as she returned to the Senate. The Pelosi and Feinstein families have been close friends for decades, but a Pelosi family member so closely assisting Feinstein led to further speculation about the political dealings around the Senate seat.
“You can’t help but think about how it could impact your campaign,” Schiff said about Feinstein’s future and the wildcard it presents. “She’ll make a decision that she feels is consistent with her health and what’s best for the state.”
Regarding the noise surrounding a possible Newsom appointment, Schiff said he was doing his best to ignore it. “My father gave me some very good advice, which is focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t. I do think that ultimately, voters want to decide this race and they want that choice to make. And I think they will have that choice.”
Porter, a favorite of California and national progressives, said, “I assume that Governor Newsom will keep his promise, but I can’t speak for him or what he’s thinking about,” adding that she was grateful for Feinstein’s return to Washington.
But she stressed that the campaign is about the future. “It’s not just about the next six months. It’s about the next six years and the next 60 years for California.”
At an event honoring Black women at the state party convention, Patrice Marshall McKenzie of Pasadena called herself “cautiously optimistic, but not confident” that Newsom would deliver. “I’m trying to keep my expectations moderate so that there’s not an issue of being disappointed if there’s under deliverance.”
Under-deliverance, for several Black women Democrats, would mean nominating a caretaker in the seat – either a non-political appointee or a politician who pledges not to run in 2024.
Tracie Stafford, a Democratic activist from Sacramento, said she was bracing herself for disappointment should Feinstein step aside before the election.
“The reality is, unfortunately, that there have not been ramifications for not keeping promises to specifically Black people and Black women,” she said.
“The reality is, where else are we going to vote? What else do we have, but our Democratic Party and our Democratic elected officials? We are absolutely between a rock and a hard place.”