California Governor Gavin Newsom has chosen Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY’s List, to serve as the interim replacement for the late Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein, who held the distinction of being the longest-serving woman in the Senate, passed away at the age of 90. As per Californian law, the governor has the authority to appoint a senator to fulfill the role until the next regularly scheduled statewide general election, which is set to take place in November 2024. Butler, the first Black woman to lead EMILY’s List, has been at the helm of the organization since 2021. Following Feinstein’s passing, Butler expressed her admiration for the senator, acknowledging her as a “titan in the Senate” and a “legendary figure for women in politics and around the country.”
Butler’s professional journey has been deeply intertwined with California. She previously served as the leader of SEIU Local 2015, the largest union in the state. Furthermore, she has been a longstanding ally of Vice President Kamala Harris and has held positions such as a member of the University of California Board of Regents and director of public policy and campaigns in North America for Airbnb.
Governor Newsom, a Democrat, had left hints over the past few months regarding his approach to appointing Feinstein’s replacement. He made it clear that if any of California’s Senate seats were to become vacant, he would select a Black woman to fill the role. Despite previously expressing a desire to avoid making another appointment, Newsom acknowledged his responsibility to do so. He emphasized that his choice would be an interim appointment and stated that none of the candidates who had been running to succeed Feinstein in 2024 would be considered. Newsom believed that appointing any of them would be unfair to those who had dedicated their efforts to their campaigns. However, Butler remains free to pursue the seat in the future if she chooses to do so.
The Congressional Black Caucus had actively urged Governor Newsom to appoint California Representative Barbara Lee. They commended Lee for her courage, vision, and record in areas such as poverty eradication, countering the fossil fuel industry, defending democracy, and tirelessly advocating for progressive causes. Nevertheless, Newsom decided to appoint Butler, adding her to the list of senators that he has chosen.
On March 5, California will hold a Senate primary election. The state utilizes a blanket primary system, where candidates from all parties compete on the same primary ballot. The two candidates who receive the most votes will proceed to the general election in November, regardless of their political affiliation.
Feinstein, the oldest member of the Senate, the longest-serving female senator, and the longest-serving senator from California, had previously announced her intention to retire at the end of her term in 2024. However, she faced ongoing pressure to step down, with concerns raised about her health and calls for younger lawmakers to take her place. Feinstein’s absence from votes in February prompted her spokesperson to announce that she was dealing with a health matter in California but hoped to return to Washington soon. Despite the criticism, Feinstein remained steadfast in her commitment to fight for Californians, as she had promised when re-elected in 2018.
With the appointment of Laphonza Butler, Governor Newsom has taken a significant step in filling the seat left vacant by the late Senator Dianne Feinstein. As Butler assumes this interim role, the focus now shifts to the upcoming primary election and the subsequent task of electing a senator who will represent and serve the people of California in the years to come.