Gov. Gavin Newsom has picked Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist who rose to prominence in the labor movement, to fill the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died Friday at age 90.
The pick fulfills the governor’s pledge to appoint a Black woman while rejecting calls for him to tap Rep. Barbara Lee, a prominent Black congresswoman from Oakland who is running for the position in the 2024 election.
Butler, 44, is the president of Emily’s List, a national political organization that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion access. She has deep experience in Democratic politics, having previously served as president of a powerful labor union and as an advisor to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.
Butler also has ties to Newsom’s longtime political operation. Before joining Emily’s List, she was a partner in the political consulting firm now known as Bearstar Strategies that is run by the governor’s veteran strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez.
It’s a historic appointment for a governor who has prioritized appointing LGBTQ+ people to positions of power — Butler, a lesbian, will be the first out person of color to serve in the Senate and the first LGBTQ+ senator from California.
“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.
“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’s appointment could scramble the 2024 race for Senate that is well underway if she decides to run. Butler has connections that could make her a formidable fundraiser, which would be necessary for any candidate jumping into a race just six months before the March primary election, when other candidates have been raising money all year.
Newsom has faced withering criticism ever since announcing plans to appoint a short-term caretaker to the coveted post, heat which his administration tried to alleviate on Sunday by offering assurances the governor’s appointee would be free to launch a 2024 Senate campaign.
“If that person decides she wants to seek a full term in 2024, then she is free to do so. There is absolutely no litmus test, no promise,” Newsom spokesman Anthony York said Sunday morning, several hours before the governor announced his pick.
It’s the second time Newsom has appointed a U.S. senator for California, a rare exercise of power that last occurred in 1953 when then-Gov. Earl Warren tapped Thomas Kuchel as senator after he had appointed William Knowland several years earlier.
With the 2024 race for Feinstein’s successor already underway, Newsom faced competing political pressures in making the selection. The Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate created urgency for him to act fast. But he had already made public promises that limited his options, vowing both to name a Black woman and stay out of the ongoing Senate race by not tapping any of the current candidates.
Three Democratic members of Congress are running: Lee, who is Black, as well as Reps. Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, who are white. Newsom said this month — when appointing a Feinstein replacement was still a hypothetical — that he didn’t want to interfere with the election by naming one of them to the post and would instead appoint a short-term caretaker.
That angered Lee and her supporters because Newsom promised to appoint a Black woman, a constituency both loyal and influential in Democratic politics. There have been no Black women in the U.S. Senate since Harris stepped down in 2021 to become vice president.
Since Feinstein died on Friday, Lee’s supporters have have mounted an aggressive campaign calling on Newsom to tap her.
“The most qualified person on Day 1 to fill the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein is none other than Congresswoman Barbara Lee,” Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said Sunday in an interview with MSNBC.
“She has the foreign affairs experience. She has the budget experience, at a time when cuts to every program that helps working people and families is under assault. She has the experience when it comes to fighting for social and economic justice and women’s rights. And at a time when all of our rights are under attack, we need the most prepared person to help us in the Senate.”
The Caucus also sent Newsom a letter making the case for Lee, and Horsford said he had talked to Newsom about it by phone and in person.
“We’re asking him to understand the moment of this appointment not only for the people of California, but for the people of the United States,” Horsford said.
Newsom has faced pressure to appoint a Black woman to the Senate since late 2020, when it became clear that Harris would step down to become vice president. Instead, he appointed Alex Padilla to fill Harris’ seat, making him the first Latino to represent California in the Senate, but frustrating Americans who want Black women to be represented in the upper chamber.
Butler is a former California resident but currently lives in Maryland, according to her online biography. The U.S. Constitution requires that people live in the state they seek to represent when they’re elected to the Senate. But for people who are appointed, the law is that they must reside in the state upon assuming office, said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the UCLA School of Law.
“So in theory someone could change their residency upon appointment,” he told The Times on Friday.
Butler owns a house in California and will re-register to vote in the state before being sworn in, according to the Newsom administration.
Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher criticized the governor for picking what he called “Maryland’s third U.S. Senator.”
“Out of 40 million California residents, Gavin Newsom seriously couldn’t find one to serve in the Senate?” Gallagher said in a statement.
“Californians deserve real representation, not a political favor for a well-connected campaign operative who doesn’t even live here.”
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