Newsom names labor leader, former Kamala Harris advisor to replace Feinstein in U.S. Senate

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday evening that he has selected Laphonza Butler, a former labor leader and now president of a highly influential women’s political group, to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein in the Senate.

Butler, who has never held public office, will serve until Feinstein’s term ends in January 2025. Her appointment, first reported by Politico, fulfills a promise by Newsom to name a Black woman to the seat without interfering with the highly-competitive race already underway.

In Butler, 44, Newsom has selected a consummate Democratic insider. She heads the national political organization EMILY’s List, which raises money to elect more Democratic women who support abortion rights. She’s also a longtime political organizer and advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris as well as a former a partner at the San Francisco-based consulting firm now known as Bearstar Strategies, run by Newsom’s top advisors.

“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, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate,” Newsom said in a statement Sunday night. “... Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”

Butler will be the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate and the first Black lesbian to serve openly in Congress.

She could take office immediately, allowing Democrats to control 51 of the Senate’s 100 seats.

In a statement Monday morning, Butler said she was honored to accept Newsom’s nomination and “humbled by the governor’s trust.”

“Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s leadership and legacy are immeasurable,” she said. “I will do my best to honor her by devoting my time and energy to serving the people of California and the people of this great nation.”

The race to replace the late Senator Dianne Feinstein

Newsom’s announcement caps a dramatic 72 hours in California politics that began with the death of Feinstein, a Democratic icon and the state’s longest-serving U.S. Senator, in the early hours of Friday. Her funeral will be held in San Francisco on Thursday.

Feinstein announced earlier this year that she would retire when her term ended in 2025. Three Democratic members of Congress quickly launched campaigns to fill her seat: Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Burbank, and Katie Porter, D-Irvine, and Barabara Lee, D-Oakland.

Newsom, who took heat from Black Democrats for replacing Harris — the chamber’s only Black woman — with Alex Padilla, pledged that he would name a Black woman to the Senate should a vacancy occur. But last month, the governor stirred controversy when he said the replacement would be an interim appointment only, someone who would not seek a full term next year.

That excluded Lee, the only Black elected official vying for the seat.

Lee was furious that Newsom would name what he called “caretaker.” Newsom later backed off that standard, which means Butler could choose to run in 2024. Should she decide to enter the race, she would have some ground to make up in terms of fundraising and polls.

Lee signaled Sunday night that she was ready to move past the issue. On X, formally known as Twitter, she said:

“I wish (Butler) well and look forward to working closely with her to deliver for the Golden State. I am singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate. CA deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”

Butler, a longtime California resident and homeowner, currently lives in Maryland. The U.S. Constitution requires those elected to the Senate to live in the state they represent. The governor’s office said Butler, who still owns a home in California, will switch her voter registration before she is sworn in.

While some groups cheered the governor’s selection, others blasted Newsom for appointing “Maryland’s 3rd US Senator.”

“Out of 40 million California residents, Gavin Newsom seriously couldn’t find one to serve in the Senate?” California Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher said in a statement. “Californians deserve real representation, not a political favor for a well-connected campaign operative who doesn’t even live here.”

Who is Laphonza Butler, Newsom’s pick for U.S. Senate?

Over the course of her career, Butler has held several executive positions, including director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb, and a partner in SCRB Strategies, which advises Democratic political campaigns.

Butler’s political involvement includes helping lead Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign and as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in California.

She has strong roots in the labor movement and sits on several prominent boards.

She’s a member of the University of California Board of Regents and the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund and BLACK PAC. She was also previously president of SEIU Local 2015, California’s largest union.

California democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom, takes a selfie with Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU local 2015, before speaking at Greater Zion Church in Compton on June 3, 2018.
California democratic candidate for governor, Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom, takes a selfie with Laphonza Butler, president of SEIU local 2015, before speaking at Greater Zion Church in Compton on June 3, 2018.

Butler grew up in Magnolia, Miss., and lives with her partner Neneki Lee and their daughter Nylah, according to EMILY’s List.

Tony Hoang, of Equality California, said in a statement Sunday that Butler was “eminently qualified to represent California.”

“This historic appointment by Governor Newsom will give our LGBTQ+ community another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country,” Hoang said. “We look forward to working with Laphonza as she steps into this new role and continues her lifelong fight for our shared values of equity, freedom and justice for all.”