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California governor appoints Laphonza Butler to Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat

Gavin Newsom, the California governor, has named Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and former labor leader, to fill the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died on Thursday.

The appointment fulfills Newsom’s pledge to appoint a Black woman to the Senate, while shirking calls to name Barbara Lee, a Black Bay Area congresswoman who is already running for the position in 2024.

Butler, 44, will be the only Black woman serving in the US senate, and the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber. She currently leads Emily’s List, a national political organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support reproductive rights. She has also served as a strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign and was a former labor leader of SEIU California, the state’s largest union, representing more than 700,000 workers.

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Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress and the longest-serving woman in the Senate, died at age 90 after a series of illnesses.

Butler currently lives in Maryland, according to her Emily’s List biography, but she owns a house in California and will re-register to vote in the state before taking office, according to the Newsom administration. She could be sworn in as early as Tuesday evening when the Senate returns to session.

Democrats control the Senate 51-49, though Feinstein’s seat is vacant. The quick appointment by Newsom will give the Democratic caucus more wiggle room on close votes, including nominations that Republicans uniformly oppose.

Newsom drew sharp criticism after he announced that he intended to appoint a short-term caretaker to the seat, so as not to tip the scales in the 2024 Senate race. Supporters of Lee, including the congressional Black Caucus had urged Newsom to appoint her.

“Barbara Lee, and Black women, are not mere caretakers, but the voting and organizing center of the national Democratic party,” said Aimee Allison, whose organization She the People promotes women of color in politics.

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The governor’s administration tried to stem criticism by saying that his appointee would be free to run in 2024 as well. His spokesperson, Anthony York, said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. The deadline for candidates to file for the office is 8 December.

However, if Butler does choose to run, she would face steep challenges mounting a campaign just six months before the March 2024 primaries.

Only been two Black women have served in the US Senate so far – Harris and Carol Moseley Braun.

Feinstein said in February she was would not seek re-election in 2024. Lee is competing against two fellow congressional Democrats – Katie Porter and Adam Schiff – for the seat. Lee, who is the only Black woman running, is currently trailing Porter and Schiff in fundraising and polling.

Butler has never held elected office, but has a long track record in California politics. Prior to joining Emily’s List, she was a partner in the political consulting firm run by the veteran Newsom strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez.

“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.

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Butler, who said she was honored to accept the nomination, posted on X: “No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California. I am ready to serve.”

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Butler was born in Magnolia, Mississippi. After her father died when she was 16, her mother supported the family working as many as three jobs at once.

She received her bachelor’s degree in political science from Jackson State University – a historically Black college – where her instructors included veterans of the civil rights movement. She told the LA Times in 2021: “What are you doing for freedom? That was always the question.”

She spent nearly two decades at the SEIU, helping organize nurses and janitors before moving to California in 2009 to lead a branch of the union representing homecare workers and nursing home workers and successfully advocating for a $15 minimum wage. She was elected SEIU president in 2013.

She worked for Airbnb as director of public policy and campaigns in North America and as a political consultant, before she joined Emily’s List, becoming the first woman of color to head the organization. With the US supreme court’s 2022 decision to overturn women’s constitutional right to abortion, the issue has become a galvanizing one for many Democrats.

In March, California voters will make two choices, deciding who should compete to finish the remainder of Feinstein’s term and who should fill the seat for a new six-year term beginning in January 2025.

The seat is expected to stay in Democratic hands in the 2024 election. Democrats in the state have not lost a statewide election since 2006, and the party holds a nearly two-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans.

The California senator Alex Padilla, who was appointed by Newsom in December 2020 after then senator Harris became vice-president, said he was “honored” to welcome Butler to the Senate, and praised the governor’s swift action in naming her.