Laphonza Butler, a Kamala Harris protégé, named to Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) has named Laphonza Butler to fill the open U.S. Senate seat which resulted from the passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. A Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign.

LOS ANGELES, CA — Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) has named Laphonza Butler to fill the open U.S. Senate seat which resulted from the passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. 

A Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign, Butler’s appointment fulfills a pledge made by Gov. Newsom to name a prominent woman of color to the post.

Newsom has been facing mounting pressure from African American politicians and advocacy groups to select Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who happens to be running for the seat already.

Butler will be the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate — and the first LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber.

Gov. Newsom said that the progressive priorities Feinstein fought for in Congress — reproductive freedom, equal protection and safety from gun violence — are under assault throughout the country. “Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein (and) continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.,” he said.

Butler is a former labor leader with SEIU 2015, a powerful force in California politics; she also leads Emily’s List, a political organization supporting Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights.

Butler’s appointment creates what could be a potentially tricky political calculus in the already crowded 2024 contest to succeed Feinstein, which has been underway since the beginning of 2023.

Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. The deadline for candidates to submit paperwork to seek the office is December 8, 2023. 

Should Butler enter the contest, she could set up a competition for the relatively small but influential group of Black voters in California, possibly undercutting Barbara Lee’s chances.

The decision carried the threat of political fallout for Newsom, who is seen as a potential future national candidate. The candidate favored by Black voters has won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination every cycle since 1992. The Congressional Black Caucus was among the groups and Black politicians that had urged Newsom to appoint Lee, calling her the best-qualified choice for the post.

Lee congratulated Butler in a prepared statement but said she remains “singularly focused on winning” her Senate campaign. She said that, “(California) deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That’s exactly what I’m running to do,” she said.

The long-serving Feinstein died last Thursday after a series of illnesses.

Butler currently lives in Maryland, but owns a home in California. She is expected to re-register to vote in California before being sworn in; this could happen as early as Tuesday evening, when the Senate is again in session.

Butler said Monday she had accepted Newsom’s nomination in order to serve “a state I have made my home.”

“No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California. I am ready to serve,” she said.

Butler has never held elected office, but has a long track record in California politics. She served as a senior adviser to Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign,  while working at a political firm full of strategists who have worked for Gavin Newsom and other prominent California Democrats. She also briefly worked in the private sector for hotelier AirBnB.

Butler 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.

Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization, said the appointment “will give our … community another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country.”

It’s not Newsom’s first time selecting a U.S. senator, after being tasked with choosing a replacement for Kamala Harris when she was elected vice president; at that time he selected California Secretary of State Alex Padilla 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.

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.

Associated Press writer Michael R. Blood filed the original version of this article. 


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