According to a source close with the decision, California Governor Gavin Newsom will name EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, elevating the leader of a massive fundraising effort to assist the election of Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Less than two days after Feinstein’s passing and just before a dangerously divided Congress almost avoided a government shutdown, Newsom is working quickly to select the next senator. In this sharply divided senate, every vote counts for Senate Democrats.
The governor’s advisor, Anthony York, told POLITICO that Newsom is appointing without placing restrictions or prerequisites on his choice to run for the position in 2024. The announcement was anticipated to occur on Monday. That implies that Butler may choose to enter the large and competitive field of Democratic candidates vying to unseat Feinstein in the special elections that will now take place in addition to the March primary and November runoff.
Sen. Butler is scheduled to take the oath of office on Wednesday from Vice President Kamala Harris.
Butler’s appointment by Newsom coincides with a period of profound upheaval in California’s political landscape, as millions of people continue to grieve the loss of Senator Feinstein, the trailblazing figure who broke down barriers. Feinstein served as a mentor to the California governor, who has been battling his own personal loss and the political fallout from his decision to succeed her.
Anonymity was offered to those who spoke with POLITICO before to the announcement in order to discuss internal discussions. Butler intends to change her voter registration from Maryland to California.
After initially promising to choose a Black woman to the position, Newsom was under a great deal of pressure to make the choice. Numerous possible candidates declared their disinterest in public. Others quietly voiced concern about taking a temporary post and then having to start preparing for a five-month campaign right once.
The haste with which Newsom was appointed prevents legislators and those who support them from organizing longer-term campaigns to influence the governor and those close to him about their choice. Additionally, it puts an end to interest groups that were beginning to put pressure on him, particularly regarding the topic of whether he would have them serve a temporary term. The governor recently disqualified Rep. Barbara Lee from consideration for the Senate due to concerns that she would give someone an advantage, but on Sunday, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford wrote to Newsom pleading with him to nominate Lee.
With the appointment of Sen. Alex Padilla to replace Harris in her old seat in 2021 and Harris’s departure to the vice presidency, Newsom keeps his pledge to appoint a Black woman to the upper chamber. Newsom also stays away from going too close to the opposition Democratic senatorial candidates from California, Reps. Lee, Schiff, and Katie Porter, who are all running for office next year. After years of pursuing the potential Senate appointment, Lee was shocked to discover in the last few weeks that Newsom was determined to sway the decision against her, which led her to publicly criticize his statement.
A seasoned organizer, Butler is well-known inside Newsom’s social circle. The native of Southern Mississippi, she was once a partner in the San Francisco-based consulting firm, now called Bearstar Strategies, alongside his senior political aides, and he considered making her his first chief of staff. After working as a senior strategist for Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign, she has continued to be one of her closest allies.
Based in Washington but with strong ties to Los Angeles, Butler previously held the position of director of public policy and campaigns at Airbnb. Prior to that, he spent almost twenty years leading the Service Employees International Union as a prominent and well-respected labor leader. She collaborated closely with then-Gov. Jerry Brown as president of SEIU California on initiatives like raising taxes on affluent Californians and raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In addition, she was named by Brown in 2018 to the University of California Board of Regents, a position she held until her resignation in 2021.
As the first openly LGBTQ senator from California, Butler is history.
She will have to put in a lot of work to be competitive for the position. The front-runners in fundraising and polling, Porter and Schiff, together with Lee, are quite well-known to voters. Running television advertisements in California is unaffordable; it costs millions of dollars to air one in every major media area. If Butler decides to run, though, she might be a strong contender.
Regardless of Butler’s Senate candidacy and victory, Newsom’s appointment will significantly alter the state’s political guard by the governor in his second term and increases the number of high-profile nominations he has made to four. This includes Attorney General Rob Bonta’s seat and Secretary of State Shirley Weber’s, who was reportedly on the shortlist for Feinstein’s position, U.S. Senate seats.
A number of senators, including Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrats Tina Smith of Minnesota and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, became powerful via appointment. Some chose not to run, including Ted Kaufman in Delaware, Arizona’s Jon Kyl, and New Jersey’s Jeffrey Chiesa.
According to Newsom, he didn’t plan on or desire to schedule the most recent appointment. But as Feinstein fell ill and the details surrounding her condition became less clear, he and his closest advisers had been debating whether or not to take this action for months. After a two-month hiatus, Newsom returned to the Senate in May. She vehemently backed her term-long tenure, arguing that Senate Republicans would exploit her vacancy to obstruct judicial confirmations that President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had prioritized.
“You think Mitch McConnell is going to seat another federal judge? Not a chance in hell. You better wish, you better pray, for her health,” Newsom told a Democratic Idaho voter during a tour of red states in July.
According to two other people familiar with their conversations, Schumer was among those who pushed Newsom to act quickly in light of the impending government shutdown in Washington and the thin Democratic majority in the Senate.
When a stopgap financing package was approved by the Senate late on Saturday and sent to Joe Biden’s desk for signature, Newsom gained some attention. Nonetheless, by then, Newsom and his team were well on their way to securing the position, ending a momentous chapter for the governor and his state and appointing the first Black woman to the Senate since Harris.
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