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.
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.
Newsom faced tremendous pressure to appoint a Black woman to the position. He had 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. Kamala 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, where she trails Reps. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, and Katie Porter, an Irvine Democrat, 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.
Newsom subsequently appeared to back off his earlier pledge. His office confirmed Sunday that his appointee would be free to run for a full term. It isn’t clear yet whether Butler will run.
Newsom communications adviser Anthony York denied that the governor had changed his mind 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.
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