The morning of Sept. 28, as Congress was trying to find a way to keep the federal government running, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein voted on the Senate floor. She passed away at home later that evening at age 90, making her the longest-serving woman in Senate history. 

This week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, to fill Feinstein’s seat for the rest of the term. Butler will be the third Black woman to serve in the Senate and first openly gay Black female senator. She’s also 44 years old and not currently running for public office—important factors in a decision that Newsom has openly dreaded making.  

Michaele Ferguson, associate professor of political science and President’s Teaching Scholar at CU Boulder, discusses age, gender and death in politics—and what voters should consider before filling out a ballot.

Photo of Associate Professor Michaele L. Ferguson

Michaele Ferguson

In general, what happens when someone dies in office? 

It really depends on the office. For the presidency, we have a process of succession where the vice president is already there and takes over. If it’s a vice president, then we have a different process where the president gets to appoint whoever takes over, and then that person has to be confirmed by a majority vote of both houses of Congress.

For some offices, it’s very clear. For others, especially in the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate, it can vary depending on when in their term a person dies and how each state handles the replacement process. 

For the Senate, most states have a process where the governor appoints a successor. That power is absolute. Some states may require a special election if the vacancy occurs early in the term because senators have a six-year term.

What kind of strategy goes behind these appointments, especially with an election coming up? 

Newsom, back in March 2021, had already committed to appointing a Black woman if Feinstein’s position became vacant during her last term. 

There are a number of people who already had thrown their hat in the ring on the Democratic side for Feinstein’s seat. Among them, we have Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter. Of those three, only one, Barbara Lee, is a Black woman.

Newsom needed to appoint somebody, but this close to the 2024 election, he did not want to put his foot on the scale in favor of one of those three candidates. I think he tried to pick somebody who wasn’t already running for office, a Black woman, a woman who was already living in the D.C. area and was able to assume the position of senator without much transition time. 

Laphonza Butler is also part of the LGBTQ community. She will be the first Black lesbian woman to serve as a senator. She’s also 44 years old, so if she decides to run for the seat in 2024, she could potentially have a bit of an incumbent advantage. I don’t know if she wants to or not; we’ll have to see. But I think by appointing a younger Black woman, Newsom actually opened the door to her being able to hold on to that seat for a long time.

Do you think the discussion about age and politics is harder on women than it is on men?

I don’t know that we have enough women in politics who’ve gotten to 80 or 90 to really see a clear pattern of how older women are treated versus older men. 

Feinstein was one of a handful of female senators when she first won a special election in 1992. I don’t know that there’s anything really gendered in the way that her case has been handled versus how people have responded to the age of Joe Biden or Mitch McConnell or Donald Trump.

I do think age had to factor into Newsom’s decision. As I already said, I think he chose Butler in part because she’s so young. Barbara Lee, the California representative running for the U.S. Senate seat is 77.

I think even if he wasn’t concerned about putting his foot on the scale, he would have wanted to avoid appointing her because replacing a 90-year-old with a 77-year-old isn’t exactly a good look for the Democratic Party right now, when both parties are facing this criticism that that their leadership is just way too old.

Do you think this evokes comparison to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg not retiring under the Obama Administration?

I would say yes and no. They’re totally different situations in terms of the political stakes of a woman holding on to her position until she dies. With Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a politician of the opposite party nominated her successor. In the case of Feinstein, Newsom is a Democrat who gets to appoint another Democrat. There’s no concern that the balance in the Senate is going to shift. 

Ginsburg’s death changed the balance of power at the Supreme Court, leading to a conservative supermajority. It will take Democrats a long time to shift that majority, even if they have the White House and the Senate because Trump appointed really young justices. 

Feinstein’s passing does leave a vacancy on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is now split at 10-10. However, Republicans have said they’ll support an 11th Democratic presence on that committee, so the stakes are not the same. 

Ultimately, I think these cases are similar in the way that, for a lot of women of a particular generation, Ginsburg and Feinstein were symbols of progress, symbols of women coming into political power and getting into really prominent political positions. Their passing is a time to honor a particular political moment. 

Where does the discussion about age and politics go from here?

When we elect politicians, no matter how old they are or how young they are, how competent they are or how incompetent they are—I think it’s always worth remembering that we are electing not just that person but the people around them. 

Sometimes you have a politician who’s very engaged and very sharp and capable. Sometimes it’s the staff around them who have the great ideas and make the right political moments or compromises happen. Sometimes it’s a combination of both of those. 

Feinstein voted the day she died. She cast her last vote on Thursday morning, and she was still active, even if her voting record in the past year was not particularly consistent in part because of her health issues. She had staff around her making sure constituent services were still being done and staff who were knowledgeable on how she should vote.

The same thing has been going on with Mitch McConnell, right? In the videos where he’s staring blankly at the camera and seems unable to come up with an answer, his staff are right there. Sometimes you can hear them feeding the answers to him. That doesn’t mean he’s incapable. I really don’t know, cognitively, what he’s capable of right now. It means the staff around him have been doing the work and continue to do the work.  

It’s quite common that this happens in politics. When we’re electing somebody, we should be thinking about the type of people they surround themselves with. That can be very hard to assess. Take Biden and Trump, for example. Biden is 80 and Trump is 77, so if either is elected in 2024, we will have an octogenarian president. Look at the people they surround themselves with, and you’ll get a good idea of who is doing the day-to-day business of running the show. 

People in these staff jobs also have an interest in maintaining their positions of power in politics. If we don’t know who the staffers are and how interested they are in holding onto power, then I think we’re really in trouble.

It’s pretty clear that it’s been difficult to convince McConnell or Feinstein to step away. I think some of that is the people around them, and some of that is their own choice.