California Politics

Newsom to Pick Laphonza Butler, EMILY’s List Head, to Fill Senate Seat on an Interim Basis

The California governor is set to announce that Butler will replace longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fulfilling a promise to name a Black woman to the seat.
Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List, speaks during an event in Washington on, June 23, 2023. (AP/SUSAN WALSH)

By Grace Panetta,  Mel Leonor BarclayTerri Rupar / The 19th

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to name Laphonza Butler, the first Black woman to lead EMILY’s List, to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The news of Newsom’s expected move was first reported by Politico and confirmed to The 19th by Newsom’s office.

Butler was named two years ago to lead EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion access, and has led the organization through the end of federal abortion rights. 

The appointment is an interim one and comes as supporters of Rep. Barbara Lee, who is among those running in the November election to replace Feinstein, pushed for Newsom to name Lee. The state will hold a special primary and election for someone to serve the rest of Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025. The special election would be quickly followed by a regular primary and regular election for the seat. 

Butler is a veteran organizer, union leader and Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2020 presidential campaign. At 30, Butler led the country’s largest home care workers’ union and the biggest union in California, SEIU Local 2015, where she fought to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

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Newsom promised in 2021 that he would name a Black woman should Feinstein vacate her seat. That came after he faced blowback when he appointed Alex Padilla, who is Latino, to fill the seat left vacant by Harris, who had been the only Black woman in the Senate. 

The Senate currently has no Black women, and only two Black women have ever served in the body: Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois from 1993 to 1999 and Harris from 2017 to 2021.  

Butler on Friday posted a statement about the death of Feinstein, calling her “a titan in the Senate, but a legendary figure for women in politics and around the country.”

Feinstein had already announced she would not seek reelection, sparking a crowded race to replace her. In an interview last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Newsom said he would not wade into the contentious 2024 primary, though he signaled he would fulfill his promise to appoint a Black woman. 

The announcement was seen as a snub to Lee, a Black woman who represents a district anchored in Oakland. She is one of three Democratic House members vying to replace Feinstein. 

“I am troubled by the Governor’s remarks. The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election,” Lee said after Newsom’s interview last month on X, the social platform known as Twitter.

Lee has trailed fellow Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter in polling and fundraising. 

“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

On Sunday, Rep. Steven Horsford, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, wrote a letter to Newsom calling Lee “the only person with the courage, the vision, and the record to eradicate poverty, face down the fossil fuel industry, defend our democracy, and tirelessly advance the progressive agenda.”

EMILY’s List has not yet endorsed a candidate in the California Senate race. 
Feinstein’s death brings Democrats’ majority in the Senate to 50 votes next to Republicans’ 49 votes. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is facing calls to resign, raising the possibility of that margin shrinking further. 

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