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Politics & Policy

Who will follow Feinstein? Report on senator’s mental decline prompts political jockeying for coveted California seat

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., arrives for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020. I Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images | Source: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

Rumors of U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s mental decline have circulated for years in Bay Area political circles, but the discourse amped up Thursday with a San Francisco Chronicle report citing an anonymous member of Congress saying the 88-year-old lawmaker’s memory is failing her and the search for a replacement may need to happen sooner rather than later. 

Feinstein’s term doesn’t end until 2024, but the alarming report has set off rampant speculation on who could succeed her in office and whether Feinstein will resign or potentially face a vote for expulsion from the U.S. Senate. Those cited said Feinstein’s memory has deteriorated to the point where she is not fully recognizing longtime colleagues and is taking a backseat to her staff in day-to-day legislative work. A New Yorker report from 2020 noted similar concerns after a viral video showed the senator repeating her questions during a Senate Judiciary Committee. 

Political insiders were firing off calls Thursday and speculation on a possible Feinstein replacement has run rampant on social media. Names being floated across the Bay Area include Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, Rep. Ro Khanna and San Francisco Mayor London Breed.

“I would hesitate to comment on Breed or anyone else at this moment. I think it’s jumping ahead of things a bit,” said Larry Gertson, a political analyst for NBC Bay Area and professor emeritus for San Jose State University’s political science department. “This is a delicate moment for Feinstein. … If she leaves, it will be because those very close to her, who she trusts, have persuaded her that her legacy will be much better by leaving rather than staying.”

Gertson also told The Standard that the situation involving Feinstein’s alleged mental decline is not historically unique among lawmakers. 

“We know in the past there were people believed to have suffered from dementia and other crippling disorders who remained in Congress for years,” Gerston said. “Probably the best example was (South Carolina Senator) Strom Thurmond, who was clearly out of sorts for the last 15 years. He had aides who routinely and consistently hovered over him. It was clear for everyone in the room to see it.”

A longtime Bay Area political strategist, who asked not to be named for this story, told The Standard that they have met with Feinstein in recent years and never noticed any issues, but that she has openly talked about the double standard of men serving in Congress until they die while women are expected to bow out gracefully.

“I was at a meeting with Feinstein and she said explicitly, ‘If the men can die in office, why can’t women?’” the source said.

“If people—in a polite way—shut the fuck up about it, maybe she retires. If there is more chatter about it, then I think it’s less likely she does that,” the source continued, noting that the recent death of Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, could play a role in the decision. “Do they then do some type of intervention and get her daughter and say it’s time? I don’t know. But that wouldn’t shock me if that happened.”

In a statement provided by her office, Feinstein did not seem at all inclined to vacate her post. “The real question is whether I’m still an effective representative for 40 million Californians, and the record shows that I am,” she wrote. She defended her work, saying she “remains committed” to fighting for California’s economy and the state’s battles against drought and wildfires, and citing her recent work on the Violence Against Women Act.

Feinstein has served in the U.S. Senate for three decades after launching her political career here in San Francisco. Born and raised in the city, she graduated from prestigious high school Convent of the Sacred Heart—now known as Convent and Stuart Hall—in Pacific Heights.

After graduating from Stanford University in 1955, Feinstein worked in the nonprofit world and on various local boards before being elected in 1969 to the Board of Supervisors, serving as its first female president in 1970. 

She twice ran for mayor and lost, but assumed the seat—becoming the first woman ever to do so in San Francisco—after the assassination of former Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in 1978. Feinstein’s two terms as mayor helped catapult her up the political ladder, despite losing a race to become California governor in 1990.

Her election to the U.S. Senate in 1992 paved the way for more first-ever accomplishments—she became the first woman to hold leadership roles across a number of key Senate committees. She is currently the third-longest tenured member of the U.S. Senate, which puts her not far from the presidential line of succession.

Gov. Gavin Newsom would have the task of appointing the senator’s successor if she does not remain in office or successfully seek another term in two years.

But the governor’s role in appointing a potential Feinstein successor comes with more risks than rewards politically, sources told The Standard. Newsom has already appointed Alex Padilla to one of California’s two U.S. Senate seats, former Assemblymember Rob Bonta to attorney general and Dr. Shirley Weber, another former assemblymember, to become California’s Secretary of State.

“Newsom has been very clear he would appoint a Black woman. I would be hard-pressed to see it be anyone other than Barbara Lee in that scenario,” Gerston said.

A different source, who has close ties to the governor’s office and also asked for anonymity, suggested a potential appointment of Breed is “within the realm” but unlikely, and that the recent corruption scandal at San Francisco’s City Hall could sideline Breed.

“I think there’s some vulnerabilities that don’t pass the smell test,” the source said, referencing Breed’s close ties to former Public Works head Mohammed Nuru, who pleaded guilty in the corruption scandal that led to numerous indictments and a wave of resignations across some of City Hall’s top departments. “I don’t think it’s a dealbreaker, at least there is a conversation. But the appointment process—the vetting is pretty stringent.”

Many view Feinstein’s current term as her last, and the list of congressional representatives who could succeed her include heavy hitters from California’s House delegation. Democratic representatives Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Khanna all have substantial campaign war chests.

But in the event of an early resignation—or the less likely chance of the Senate voting to expel Feinstein—the frontrunner seems to be Lee, sources agreed. And part of that circles back to Newsom’s own political future.

Lee is 75 years old. Her appointment would not only put a Black woman back in the U.S. Senate after Kamala Harris resigned to become vice president, but it would also fulfill a promise the governor has made on numerous occasions. Lee’s time in office would likely last years rather than decades, giving Newsom a potential path to a national office.

“He’d be stupid not to think at some point he could run for Senate,” the political strategist said. “It would be stupid to close it off and name somebody young.”

Josh Koehn can be reached at