Newsom picks Laphonza Butler, political ally and power player, to replace Feinstein

Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY's List, speaks during an event in Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2023. Photo by Susan Walsh, AP Photo

Laphonza Butler, a longtime political strategist with close ties to organized labor and Gov. Gavin Newsom, will take the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat in the U.S. Senate following her death Friday.

The appointment, reported by Politico tonight and confirmed by the governor’s office, closes a brief but rapid period of speculation about how Newsom would fulfill a promise to return a Black woman to the Senate without tipping the scales in what is already a crowded race to succeed Feinstein.

“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,” Newsom said in a statement. “Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”

Butler currently serves as president of EMILYs List, an organization that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. She was for many years the head of SEIU Local 2015, a union representing California long-term caregivers, before becoming a partner in what was then known as SCRB Strategies, Newsom’s political consulting firm, and later working in public policy for Airbnb. She’s also a former University of California regent.

Her selection allows Newsom, who enjoys making political history with his appointments, to once again celebrate a milestone — Butler is the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate. She lives in Maryland with her partner, Neneki Lee, and their daughter, Nylah, according to an online biography.

“For women and girls, for workers and unions, for struggling parents waiting for our leaders to bring opportunity back to their homes, for all of California, I’m ready to serve,” Butler said in a statement.

Republicans swiftly criticized Newsom for choosing someone from outside the state. Izzy Gardon, a spokesperson for the governor, said that Butler is a longtime California homeowner who moved to the Washington, D.C., area to run EMILYs List and that she would re-register to vote in California before being sworn into the Senate.

In a statement, Tony Hoang, executive director of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Equality California, celebrated “another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country.”

This is Newsom’s second Senate appointment, and he faced tremendous pressure to choose a Black woman for the position. Only two, including Vice President Kamala Harris, have ever served as senators and none currently do.

Newsom promised to do so during an MSNBC interview in March 2021, an effort to alleviate the anger some activists felt when he chose Alex Padilla to be California’s first Latino senator after then-Sen. Harris was elected vice president.

But earlier this month, the governor told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would make an “interim appointment” if he had to fill Feinstein’s seat because he did not “want to get involved in the primary,” even as he remained committed to choosing a Black woman.

That seemingly ruled out Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat who is already running for Senate. She trails Reps. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, and Katie Porter, an Irvine Democrat, who are both white, in public polls about the March primary.

Lee and her supporters were incensed, calling it offensive that a Black woman should only get to serve in the Senate in a caretaker capacity. Many of them, including the Congressional Black Caucus, publicly urged Newsom to select her anyway in the days after Feinstein’s death.

After Newsom’s announcement, Lee wished Butler well in an online statement, but said she is “singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate.”

“CA deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities,” Lee said. “That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”

Butler’s appointment could further complicate the race. Newsom appeared to back off his earlier pledge on Sunday, when his office confirmed that his appointee would be free to run for a full term.

It isn’t clear yet whether Butler will run. If she does, she will have to manage two campaigns at once — one for the regular election to succeed Feinstein, and one for a special election to fill out the remainder of her term, which is expected to be held concurrently, with a primary in March and a potential runoff in November.

Newsom communications adviser Anthony York denied that the governor had changed his mind about a short-term appointment and said his comment referred to the fact that his appointee would serve as an interim until the next election. York said Newsom regretted not clearing up the confusion sooner, but the decision about a replacement was still hypothetical at that time.

Despite her previous career, organized labor is likely to split on Butler. Many felt betrayed when she represented Uber in 2019 as the company tried to broker a deal that would avoid classifying their drivers as employees. Several unions have already endorsed other candidates in the Senate race.

Newsom’s quick decision on the appointment, which should allow Butler to be sworn in this week, will boost the razor-thin majority that Democrats hold in the Senate — a potentially crucial vote in the month ahead as Congress, which barely avoided a government shutdown this weekend, must pass another bill to fund operations by mid-November.

“Governor Newsom’s swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority,” Padilla said in a statement. “I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California.” 

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