Late Sunday evening, Oct. 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom confirmed that Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List — a political action committee focused on electing pro-choice, Democratic women — will replace the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and finish out her term through 2024.
Newsom said in a statement, “An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California…. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”
As CalMatters’ state Capitol reporter Alexei Koseff explains, Butler for many years was the president of SEIU Local 2015, a union representing long-term caregivers, before becoming a partner in a political consulting firm that counts Newsom among its clients. She later worked in public policy for Airbnb and was a University of California regent.
She will be the first LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the U.S. Senate, giving Newsom — who has appointed the state’s first Latino U.S. senator and the first openly gay justice to the California Supreme Court — the opportunity to rack up another “first.”
Among those celebrating: Planned Parenthood and the LGBTQ+ advocacy group Equality California.
Jodi Hicks, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California: “Laphonza has been an inspiration to so many, including myself, and I am so proud of our state and our representation right now. She will be an amazing advocate for Californians in the Senate…”
The news that Butler would succeed Feinstein, first reported by Politico, came as Newsom faced intense public pressure to appoint a Black woman to the job. This was, in part, due to his own comments following his 2020 appointment of Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate after then-Sen. Kamala Harris was elected vice president. Newsom said if he got the chance to name a successor to Feinstein, he would want a Black woman.
But six months later on NBC’s “Meet the Press” — amid Feinstein’s declining health and decision not to seek reelection — Newsom said if given the opportunity he would make an “interim appointment” to avoid tipping “the balance” of a crowded March primary race. The lineup already includes three high-profile Democratic candidates: Reps. Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine, and Barbara Lee of Oakland.
The implication that a Black woman should only serve in the Senate in a caretaker capacity led to public outcry from Lee, who is Black, and her supporters. Earlier on Sunday, the chairperson of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Steven Horsford, sent a letter to the governor urging him to pick Lee. And a number of Black female California politicians questioned why any Black woman would take the job knowing she had to give it up in little more than a year. A Los Angeles Times column by Erika D. Smith was headlined: “Newsom’s cynical pitch: Hey, you there, Black woman. Can you keep Feinstein’s seat warm?”
By late Sunday, the governor’s office confirmed to Alexei that his appointee would, in fact, be free to run for a full term; Newsom communications advisor Anthony York said he regretted not clearing up the confusion sooner. No word on whether Butler intends to run — she now lives in Maryland, but a spokesperson for the governor said she owns a home in California and will re-register to vote here before being sworn into the Senate on Monday, Oct. 2.