LOS ANGELES — When California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the US Senate seat of his late mentor Dianne Feinstein, he could have turned to the mayor of the city, a member of Congress or a powerful legislator.
Instead, he chose Laphonza Butler, a former union leader and Democratic insider who heads a national organization that raises money for women’s candidates who support abortion rights. He offered a familiar face who shared his vision for a progressive California. In choosing Butler, he also picked someone who could be a key ally for a potential national campaign that many see in his future.
At the time she was sworn in, Butler was the only black woman in the Senate and the first openly LGBTQ+ California senator. That, along with his background in labor and women’s rights movements, will help solidify Newsom’s relationship with key national Democratic constituencies.
Speaking to reporters Monday in San Francisco, Newsom praised Butler’s “deep knowledge” of the legislative process and said he was the kind of candidate he would build “if I had to literally design from my imagination.”
“He was the only option,” he added.
Few voters outside of working-class Democratic politics will recognize his name, but Butler is well-known within the party apparatus. His credentials include working for nearly two years in a consulting firm closely tied to the governor and founded by his top political lieutenants. He also served as a senior adviser to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign and chaired Emily’s List, the abortion rights group.
While Newsom may be looking for a marquee name to fill the seat, “the comfort level is important. Any governor would be hesitant about someone with high levels of separation,” the scientist said. in politics at Claremont McKenna College Jack Pitney.
But the choice of Newsom was not accepted by everyone. A competitive race for Feinstein’s seat has begun with three prominent House Democrats, Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, who are Black. The governor said he doesn’t want to tip the scales in the 2024 race by choosing candidates.
Butler has not said whether he intends to run for a full term, a decision he must make by Dec. 8.
Newsom said he told Butler to “do what you think is best for you and the state of California, and you make that judgment completely independent of any expectations from me.”
His choice quickly drew criticism from Republicans, who have long struggled in a liberal-leaning state where Democrats haven’t lost a statewide election since 2006.
“The last thing we need is more union activists in government,” tweeted GOP Assemblyman Bill Essayli.
Butler has not made a public appearance since the appointment was announced by Newsom’s office on Sunday. She is expected to be sworn in Tuesday in Washington by Harris, the last black woman to serve in the Senate.
“For women and girls, for workers and unions, for struggling parents waiting for our leaders to return to their homes, for all of California, I am ready to serve,” he said in a statement.
Newsom faced intense pressure from Black political leaders and advocacy groups to appoint Lee to the post after he promised to nominate a Black woman if Feinstein did not finish her term. Although most groups praised Butler, their anger at Newsom for snubbing Lee is likely to grow.
State Sen. Steven Bradford, vice chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said he was disappointed that Newsom passed over Lee, “who is simply unmatched for his values, vision and lived experiences.”
Aimee Allison, who founded She the People, a political advocacy network for women of color that also supports Lee, said in a statement that she was “thrilled at the prospect of so many talented Black women who run for Senate” in California and elsewhere.
Ballots for the March 5 primary will be sent to voters in early February, leaving only a narrow window for Butler to raise money in a state where a statewide campaign can easily cost $20. million or more.
Butler, 44, comes from a working-class family. His father, a small business owner, died of a chronic illness when he was 16 years old. His mother worked as a classroom aide, a home care provider, a security guard and a bookkeeper while taking care of Butler and his two siblings, in the governor’s office. said.
He has never held public office.
Butler was elected president of the state’s largest labor union in the early 2010s, back when the country was reeling from the Great Recession.
“Laphonza has this ability to get what’s in people’s hearts,” said Arnuflo De La Cruz, the current president of the union who at the time was elected with Butler as executive vice president of the union. “He can connect with members from completely different backgrounds in all areas across the state.”
That work culminated in 2016 when former Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 an hour. De La Cruz said that Butler is the union’s chief negotiator.
“The ability to be politically effective is probably a little bit about vision but definitely a lot about strength and your ability to elect people or get rid of them,” De La Cruz said.
Democratic state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, a former official with the Los Angeles Federation of Labor, said Butler is committed to lifting women out of poverty.
“He’s very strong in a strategic way. He doesn’t waste a lot of words when he’s talking,” said Durazo. “He’s considered very powerful. He doesn’t abuse that power.”
Butler left the labor movement for campaign consulting, joining a firm with top advisers Newsom and Harris. He was a senior adviser to Harris’s campaign for president, which began with a lot of singing but fizzled out as he struggled to raise money and tailor his message.
Butler also works for corporate clients, including Airbnb and Uber.
Newsom, who was elected governor in 2018, currently holds two U.S. state senators. Picking Butler has similarities to the last time, when he tapped his close friend and confidant for the job, now-Sen. Alex Padilla.
At that time, Newsom was forced to choose a Black woman to take the seat of Harris, who is Black. His election of Padilla, the state’s first Latino senator, ranked the state’s Black leadership as seeing the seat theirs.