California Gov. Gavin Newsom will name Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat held by the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Newsom said Sunday.
In choosing Butler, Newsom fulfilled his pledge to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat should become open. However, he had been facing pressure by some Black politicians and advocacy groups to select Rep. Barbara Lee, a prominent Black congresswoman who is already running for the seat. Lee, 77, has served the Oakland area in Congress since 1998.
Lee is one of several prominent Democrats competing for the seat, including U.S. Reps. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, and Adam Schiff, D-Burbank. Newsom said he did not want to appoint any of the candidates because it would give them an unfair advantage in the race.
Newsom’s spokesman Anthony York said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. Dec. 8 is the deadline for candidates to file for the office.
“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate,” Newsom said in a statement late Sunday. “As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault.
“Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”
Butler will be the second Black woman to serve as a senator from California, following Harris, and will be the state’s first openly LGBTQ person to represent the nation’s largest state in the Senate. She is expected to be sworn in Wednesday by Harris.
Feinstein, the long-serving Democratic senator, died last Thursday after a series of illnesses. Butler leads Emily’s List, a political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. She also is a former labor leader with SEIU 2015, a powerful force in California politics.
“People from all walks of life – especially Black women and our allies here in California – called for Gov. Newsom to keep his promise, and I am so pleased that this is a promise kept,” said Aimee Allison, president of She the People, an organization that empowers women of color in politics.
“I know Laphonza Butler and her long history of commitments to working people, women and the gay community, and her work behind the scenes to elect the vice president,” said Allison. “She is a well-respected leader here in California and understands our diverse, growing electorate and will do admirably in the Senate.”
Butler currently lives in Maryland, according to her Emily’s List biography. Butler had moved to the Washington, D.C. area when she took the helm of Emily’s List, but she is a California homeowner and will re-register to vote in the state before she is sworn in, said a person in the Governor’s Office.
Already, Butler’s residency is being criticized by Republicans. “Out of 40 million California residents, Gavin Newsom seriously couldn’t find one to serve in the Senate? Heck, if he wanted someone with California roots and legislative experience, he could have given me a call,” said Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City. “Californians deserve real representation, not a political favor for a well-connected campaign operative who doesn’t even live here.”
Butler did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but several people praised the pick.
“It’s a very savvy pick for Newsom. She brings very strong pro-choice, pro-labor and pro-LGBTQ credentials along with her that’s going to provide him with a lot of currency among several key Democratic constituencies,” said Dan Schnur, who teaches political messaging at USC and UC Berkeley.
Earlier Sunday, York, the senior communications director for Newsom, signaled support for a tweet from Rep. Cori Bush, D-Missouri, that said, in part: “Newsom did the right thing when he promised to appoint a Black woman to the U.S. Senate. If he intends to keep his promise and appoint a Black woman to the Senate, there shouldn’t be any strings attached.”
Bush, however, said the governor should appoint Lee to the seat.
The appointment of Butler, said Schnur, makes it clear that the Newsom administration would not oppose her if she chooses to run for the seat in 2024, but it would be difficult to see her jumping into the race as quickly as she’d need to.
“Over a few hours, what they accomplished was them saying it’s OK if the appointee was to run, but unlike Lee, it’s unlikely she will,” said Schnur. “It will be difficult for Lee’s supporters to get that upset with him because Butler is so well-respected.”
Democrats control the Senate 51-49, though Feinstein’s seat is vacant. A quick appointment by Newsom will give the Democratic caucus more wiggle room on close votes, including nominations that Republicans uniformly oppose. She could be sworn in as early as Tuesday evening when the Senate returns to session.
Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress and the longest-serving Californian and longest-serving woman in the Senate, died at age 90 after a series of illnesses. She said in February she would not seek re-election in 2024.
Butler has never held elected office but has a long track record in California politics. She served as a senior adviser to Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign while working at a political firm filled with strategists who have worked for Newsom and many other prominent state Democrats. She also briefly worked in the private sector for Airbnb.
She called Feinstein “a legendary figure for women in politics and around the country,” in a statement posted after Feinstein’s death.
Emily’s List, the group Butler leads, focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn women’s constitutional right to abortion, the issue has become a galvanizing one for many Democrats.
Butler once said the Emily’s List job was a chance to better the world for her daughter:
“I saw (the position) as a chance to help create that future where everyone can be fair and nobody is left behind,” Butler told Marie Claire in 2021.
It’s not Newsom’s first time selecting a U.S. senator, after being tasked with choosing a replacement for Harris when she was elected vice president; at that time he selected California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, who grew up in Pacoima, for the post. It was one of a string of appointments Newsom made in late 2020 and early 2021, a power that gave him kingmaker status among the state’s ambitious Democrats.
“Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women’s representation in politics. I’m honored to welcome her to the United States Senate,” Padilla said in a statement. “Governor Newsom’s swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority. I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California.”
The seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands in the 2024 election. Democrats in the liberal-leaning state have not lost a statewide election since 2006, and the party holds a nearly 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Staff writer Kaitlyn Schallhorn and the Associated Press contributed to this article.
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