Laphonza Butler Tapped to Replace Feinstein

The Emily's list leader will be the first Black lesbian in the Senate.

WaPo (“Newsom taps Emily’s List leader to fill Feinstein’s Senate seat“):

California Gov. Gavin Newsom said late Sunday that he plans to appoint Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last week at the age of 90.

The interim appointment will extend until at least November 2024. Feinstein had planned to step down at the end of her term, in January 2025. Three of California’s top Democrats — Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff — are in a contentious primary contest for that seat, in what is likely to be the most expensive congressional race in the nation next year. The appointment helps Democrats retain control of the Senate.

In announcing his decision Sunday night on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Newsom noted that Butler will make history as the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the U.S. Senate. “Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people,” he said.

“From her time as President of EMILY’s List to leading the state’s largest labor union, she has always stood up for what is right and has led with her heart and her values,” Newsom said in his statement. “I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”

Butler has deep ties in the labor movement after decades working in a variety of roles. Before heading Emily’s List, the fundraising powerhouse group that has worked to support Democratic women up and down the ballot, she served as the president of SEIU Local 2015, a union that represented 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout California. She previously served as an SEIU international vice president and headed SEIU United Long Term Care Workers.

She has worked closely with key advisers to Newsom (D). In 2019 and 2020, she was a partner at a firm that was then known as SCRB Strategies — now known as BearStar Strategies — with top Newsom consultants Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez. The firm’s clients at the time included Newsom and Sen. Kamala D. Harris before she became vice president. Butler has long been a close ally of Harris, helping her line up support among the labor unions when she ran for California attorney general.

While this is not a name I’d heard floated, she seems perfectly qualified for the post and yet unlikely to join the contest for the permanent seat. Newsom’s decision not to tip the balance of the ongoing primary strikes me as both politically shrewd and fair. It is not, of course, without controversy.

Newsom, who is widely viewed as a future White House contender, fulfilled the promise he made in 2021 to appoint a Black woman to the chamber.

He made that pledge shortly after appointing Alex Padilla to fill Harris’s Senate seat as she headed to Washington to serve as vice president. Padilla became the first Latino senator to represent California, but Harris’s departure meant there were no longer any Black women serving in the Senate. Butler will be the only Black female senator.

As Feinstein’s health declined in recent years and questions swirled about whether she would leave before her term ended, Newsom considered some of the highest-ranking Black politicians in California as potential replacements.

Those under consideration included Lee, who has served in the House since 1998 and is the highest-ranking African American woman appointed to House Democratic leadership; Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, a former congresswoman and former speaker of the California State Assembly; and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, whom Newsom appointed to replace Padilla in 2021.

Newsom faced an increasingly complex situation after Feinstein announced in February that she would not seek reelection — accelerating the fierce battle to replace her.

Though Lee initially would have been a natural choice for the appointment, Newsom indicated to allies that he did not want to unfairly tip the balance in an ongoing race among three Democrats. He publicly confirmed that thinking during a recent NBC interview in which he said he would not choose anyone already running for Feinstein’s seat.

Newsom’s comments on NBC were interpreted by Lee’s allies as an assertion that he planned to ask his appointee to serve in a caretaking role. But people familiar with his thinking said he has not set any of those kinds of preconditions in his conversations with potential appointees.

Still, his comment that he would make an “interim appointment” angered some allies on the left who had urged him to appoint a Black woman to the Senate and felt there should not be any implied constraints over that person’s ability to seek a full Senate term. Schiff, who is White, is widely viewed as the front-runner in the race to become the next senator from California because he is far ahead of his rivals in fundraising and endorsements.

The pressure continued to mount for Newsom over the weekend to choose Lee, even though that move would upset many powerful allies of Schiff. They include influential California Democratic donors to Schiff who would be helpful to Newsom’s future White House aspirations, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former House speaker who is Schiff’s most prominent backer.

Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford, a Democrat from Nevada, sent a letter to Newsom on Sunday urging him to choose Lee for the role, stating that “her unparalleled legislative record, long-standing leadership in the Democratic Party and deep commitment to justice and equality cannot be equaled.”

Powerful liberal leaders, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), also weighed in on the appointment by voicing support for Lee after Feinstein’s death was announced early Friday.

“Nobody deserves an appointment to the Senate more than @BarbaraLeeForCA,” Jayapal said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

“She has inspired millions & done the work. Why is it that when a Black woman seeks appointment, she can only be a caretaker? This was not the standard for Newsom’s last appointment,” Jayapal wrote, alluding to his appointment of Padilla to the Senate in 2020, “and it shouldn’t be now.”

Lee is 77 years old and a distant third in the polls. It would have been absurd to appoint her to the post when Californians have rather clearly narrowed the race to one between Schiff and Porter.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. DK says:

    I give Barbara Lee’s supporters an E for effort. It was unseemly, but I won’t knock ’em for trying. They played every card in the book.

    Problem was they were mostly out-of-state. No way on gawd’s green earth would Newsom or any California governor would go against the wishes of California voters.

  2. Tony W says:

    It has been clear for months that Newsom had no interest in deciding who our Senator was going to be long-term.

    This is a brilliant move.

    Butler gets better statewide name recognition for the future, she’s welcome to try to get involved in the current race for the seat, but she will also be positioned as a potential Governor candidate when Newsom moves on.

    I am impressed with this solution to a really difficult problem.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Tony W:

    It seldom works than governors try to get too cute with filling expiring terms of senators. Minnesota Dems got throttled by the voters in 1978 for playing games with Walter Mondale’s seat when he became VP. And famously the Massachusetts legislature won the turd crown for changing the rules on appointment so an R governor couldn’t name the senator when Kennedy died. The voters punished the Dems for that as well.

    Newsom, playing it straight was smart.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Downright Solomonic.

  5. EddieInCA says:

    @Michael Reynolds:


    @Tony W:

    Concur. This was smart politics. Very smart.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    And famously the Massachusetts legislature won the turd crown for changing the rules on appointment so an R governor couldn’t name the senator when Kennedy died. The voters punished the Dems for that as well.

    I don’t think the voters were upset with the rules change. I think they just really hated Coakley.

  7. Paine says:

    So when did it become a thing for dem pols to to pledge to appoint someone from this race or that? Biden in 2020 re: a SCOTUS pick?

  8. DK says:

    @Paine: Reagan and Trump both pledged to appoint women to SCOTUS and nobody batted an eye. What’s the hangup about race?

  9. Bill Jempty says:

    Is Butler eligible to be a Senator from California? She is a Maryland resident.

  10. Tony W says:

    @ Paine:
    For a couple of centuries, American politicians appointed only white men to frikken everything, but nobody batted an eye at that either.

  11. Tony W says:

    @Bill Jempty: Looks like she’s changing her residency to full-residency in California, as many of us do when we decide to move here permanently.

    The Franchise Tax Board is happy to tax us as full time residents from the moment we breathe our first gulp of California air intending to stay put, so I think they have demonstrated that residency is pretty simple to establish.

  12. al Ameda says:

    Lee is 77 years old and a distant third in the polls. It would have been absurd to appoint her to the post when Californians have rather clearly narrowed the race to one between Schiff and Porter.

    This was the decision that had to be made.
    Newsom was smart to let Lee, Porter, and Schiff fight it out in the lection.