LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and adviser to the 2020 presidential campaign of Kamala Harris, to fill the US Senate seat vacated by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
In selecting Butler on Sunday, Newsom kept his promise to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat became open. However, he faced pressure from some Black politicians and advocacy groups to choose Barbara Lee, a prominent Black congresswoman who was already running for the seat.
Butler is the only Black woman to serve in the US Senate and the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber.
Newsom said in a statement that the priorities Feinstein fought for in Congress — reproductive freedom, equal protection and safety from gun violence — are under attack in the country. “Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein (and) continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington DC,” he said.
Butler heads Emily’s List, a political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. He is also a former SEIU 2015 labor leader, a powerful political force in California.
Her appointment sets up a potentially difficult political calculus in the crowded 2024 race to succeed Feinstein, which has been underway since the beginning of the year.
Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying in the race. The deadline for candidates to submit papers to seek the office is Dec. 8. If Butler joins the race, he could create a contest for a relatively small but influential group of Black voters in California and possibly reduce Lee’s chances.
Emily’s List is known as a fundraising powerhouse, and raising large amounts of campaign cash is a must in any California statewide race. Newsom’s statement said he would be leaving the organization.
The decision brought the threat of political fallout for Newsom, who was seen as a potential future national candidate. The candidate favored by Black voters has won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination every cycle since 1992. The Congressional Black Caucus was among the groups and Black politicians urging Newsom to appoint Lee, calling him best qualified choice for the position.
Lee congratulated Butler in a statement but said he remains “solely focused on winning” his Senate campaign.
California “deserves an experienced senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That’s exactly what I’m running to do,” he said.
The long-serving Feinstein died Thursday at the age of 90 after a series of illnesses.
Feinstein said in February that she would not seek re-election in 2024. Lee is one of several prominent Democrats competing for the seat, including Democratic US Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Newsom said he did not want to name any of the candidates because it would give him an unfair advantage in the race.