California Governor Gavin Newsom has chosen Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and advisor to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign, to fill the vacant U.S. Senate seat previously held by the late Senator Dianne Feinstein. Newsom’s decision comes after promising to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat became available. However, there was pressure from some Black politicians and advocacy groups to select Representative Barbara Lee, a prominent congresswoman who is already running for the seat.
By selecting Butler, Newsom fulfills his pledge and appoints not only a Black woman but also the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the U.S. Senate. According to a statement by Newsom, Butler will carry on the priorities Feinstein fought for in Congress, including reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence.
Butler is the leader of Emily’s List, a political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. She also has a background in labor leadership with SEIU 2015, a powerful force in California politics.
While Butler’s appointment is historic, it sets up a potentially complicated political scenario in the 2024 election to succeed Feinstein. Newsom’s spokesman, Anthony York, stated that the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. If Butler decides to run, it could create competition among the small but influential group of Black voters in California and potentially impact Lee’s chances.
Emily’s List is known for its fundraising prowess, which is essential in any statewide California race. In his statement, Newsom mentioned that Butler will step down from the organization. However, the decision carries potential political fallout for Newsom, who is seen as a potential future national candidate, as the candidate favored by Black voters has won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination every cycle since 1992.
Feinstein had served as a U.S. Senator for a long time before passing away last week at the age of 90. Butler, who currently resides in Maryland, is expected to re-register to vote in California before being sworn in.
The appointment by Newsom will give the Democratic caucus more flexibility in close votes, including nominations that Republicans uniformly oppose. Democrats already hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, excluding Feinstein’s vacant seat.
Butler’s selection adds another voice to Congress for the LGBTQ+ community, according to Equality California, the nation’s largest statewide LGBTQ+ civil rights organization.
This is not the first time Newsom has had to select a U.S. senator. Previously, he appointed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris when she was elected vice president. Newsom’s power to make such appointments gives him significant influence among the state’s ambitious Democrats.
Considering the liberal-leaning nature of the state, the seat is expected to remain in Democratic hands in the 2024 election. Democrats have not lost a statewide election in California since 2006, and the party has a substantial voter registration advantage over Republicans.