California Gov. Gavin Newsom names Laphonza Butler to replace Dianne Feinstein in U.S. Senate

SACRAMENTO – Laphonza Butler will replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office confirmed Sunday night.

Butler serves as president of EMILY’s List, which works to elect women to political office. She will be the third Black woman to ever serve in the Senate. Politico was first to report Newsom would appoint Butler.

Butler, who is a lesbian, has been honored by the LGBT group Equality California for her contributions to public service in the state. She previously served as a top official with the Service Employees International Union. She also previously worked for AirBnB and as a University of California regent.

Butler, a longtime California resident, currently lives in Maryland but owns a home in California. The governor’s office said she would re-register to vote in California soon.

In appointing her, Newsom kept his promise to replace Feinstein with a Black woman if she didn’t finish her term. That promise, which Newsom made in 2021, put him in an awkward position when Feinstein announced she would retire at the end of her current term and several prominent California Democrats launched campaigns to replace her. 

Newsom faced some backlash for appointing then-California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Sen. Kamala Harris when she was elected vice president. Padilla made history as the first Latino to represent California in the Senate, but Harris’ departure stripped the chamber of its only Black female senator.

Newsom has wielded remarkable influence as governor through his appointments. In addition to both of California’s senators, Newsom also appointed San Diego Assembly Member Shirley Weber to replace Padilla, and Alameda Assembly Member Rob Bonta to succeed California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who left the job to lead the federal Health and Human Services Agency under President Joe Biden. 

Butler will serve in the Senate through the end of the current term, which runs through 2024. Voters will decide next year who should serve a new six-year term that begins in 2025.

The timing of Feinstein’s death means the special election to replace her will likely be consolidated with California’s primary and general elections next year.

Butler will be free to run for the seat, but would face an uphill battle trying to compete with the three top Democrats already in the race: Reps. Barbara Lee of Oakland, Katie Porter of Irvine and Adam Schiff of Burbank. Her leadership of EMILY’s List, which helps fund campaigns, could give her a fundraising boost if she were to run.

Padilla, Weber and Bonta were all easily elected to full terms after Newsom appointed them to their roles. But Butler would likely face a much harder electoral contest if she decides to run.

Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor’s primary concern in choosing Feinstein’s replacement was finding the most qualified person for the role. 

“His job is to appoint someone now that there is a vacancy,” Newsom spokesman Anthony York told the Chronicle on Sunday. “Whether that person decides to run will be entirely up to her.”

Lee’s supporters pressured Newsom since Feinstein’s death was announced Friday to appoint the longtime Oakland representative. Appointing Lee, the only prominent Black woman in the race, would have fulfilled Newsom’s promise, but would have tipped the scales in favor of Lee over the other candidates.

Lee’s supporters criticized Newsom for comments he recently made on “Meet the Press” before Feinstein’s death that he still planned to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein didn’t finish her term, but that he would do so as an “interim appointment.” His comments suggested he would appoint someone who would not run to fill the seat in the next election as opposed to someone like Lee, who is actively campaigning for the job.

Newsom said he didn’t want to “tip the balance” of the election. 

Lee described that position as “insulting.” 

“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,” she said in a statement in response to his remarks.

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