Newsom picks Laphonza Butler as Feinstein replacement

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California Gov. Gavin Newsom will appoint EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler to fill the seat of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, elevating the head of a fundraising juggernaut that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, according to a person familiar with the decision.

Newsom is moving swiftly to name the next senator, two days after Feinstein’s death and just as a perilously split Congress narrowly averted a government shutdown. Senate Democrats are in need of every vote in the closely divided chamber.

The announcement was expected to come Monday, and an adviser to the governor, Anthony York, told POLITICO that Newsom is making his appointment without putting limitations or preconditions on his pick running for the seat in 2024. That means Butler could decide to join the sprawling and competitive field of Democratic contenders seeking to succeed Feinstein, with special elections now layered on top of the March primary and November runoff.

Butler is expected to be sworn-in to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Newsom’s selection of Butler comes at a moment of immense change in California’s political establishment, with millions of people still mourning the death of Feinstein, the barrier-breaking Senate lioness. Meanwhile the California governor, who was mentored by Feinstein, has been grappling with his own personal grief and the political ramifications of his choice to succeed her.

The people who spoke with POLITICO ahead of the announcement were granted anonymity to disclose internal deliberations. Butler is registered to vote in Maryland but will switch her registration to California.

Newsom faced considerable pressure around the decision after first pledging to name a Black woman to the seat. Several potential nominees said publicly they were not interested. Some others privately expressed trepidation about accepting a short-term appointment and then having to immediately gear up for what would be a five-month campaign.

The swift nature of Newsom’s appointment cuts politicians and their allies off from mounting more sustained efforts to lobby the governor and his inner circle over his pick. And it halts interest groups that were starting to apply pressure on him, including over the question of whether he would require them to serve only temporarily. On Sunday, Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford wrote to Newsom urging him to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee, a candidate for the Senate whom the governor recently ruled out over worries about giving someone a leg up.

Newsom fulfills the promise he made to name a Black woman to the upper chamber following the departure of Harris to the vice presidency and his selection of Sen. Alex Padilla to her old seat in 2021. Newsom also avoids veering directly into next year’s Senate contest between rival Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Lee, all Democrats from California. Lee had spent years angling for the possible Senate appointment, only to learn in recent weeks that Newsom was intent on not tipping the scales in her favor, prompting her to sharply rebuke his public pronouncement.

Butler is a veteran organizer and well-known in Newsom’s orbit. He contemplated hiring the Southern Mississippi native to be his first chief of staff, and she was aone-time partner in the San Francisco-based consulting firm, now known as Bearstar Strategies, with his top political advisers. She has remained a confidant of Vice President Kamala Harris, after serving as a senior strategist on her 2020 presidential campaign.

Butler, who is based in Washington and maintains close ties with Los Angeles, had a stint as director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb and spent nearly two decades as a powerful and well-respected labor leader with the Service Employees International Union. As president of SEIU California, she worked closely with then-Gov. Jerry Brown on policies like hiking the minimum wage to $15 per hour and raising taxes for wealthy Californians. She also served on the University of California Board of Regents, to which she was appointed by Brown in 2018 before stepping down in 2021.

Butler is the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate.

It will be a major undertaking for her to vie for the seat. Porter and Schiff, the leaders in fundraising and polls, as well as Lee, are comparatively well-known to voters. California is prohibitively expensive to run in, with TV ads costing millions to air across major media markets. But Butler could be a formidable candidate if she chooses to be.

Newsom’s appointment — regardless of whether Butler runs for the Senate and wins — will continue to dramatically reshape the state’s political guard by the second-term governor and brings to four the number of high-profile nominations he’s made. That includes both U.S. Senate seats, Attorney General Rob Bonta and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who was rumored to be on the shortlist for Feinstein’s post.

Many senators rose to power through an appointment, including Democrats Tina Smith of Minnesota and Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina. Others like Jon Kyl in Arizona, Ted Kaufman in Delaware and Jeffrey Chiesa in New Jersey declined to run.

Newsom has said he neither expected, nor wanted, to make the latest appointment. But for months, he and his top advisers had discussed the prospect of having to do so as Feinstein fell ill and reports about her condition grew dimmer. In May, she returned to the Senate after two months away and Newsom passionately supported the idea of her serving the rest of her term, contending that Senate Republicans would use her vacancy to help block judicial confirmations prioritized by President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“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.

Schumer in recent days was among those urging Newsom to move with speed given the looming shutdown in Washington and bare-bones Democratic majority in the Senate, two other people familiar with their conversations said.

Newsom earned a bit of time on Saturday when the Senate cleared a stopgap funding bill late in the day, sending it to Biden’s desk for his signature. By that point, however, Newsom and aides were already well on their way to filling the seat, capping a dramatic chapter for the governor and his state and delivering to the Senate its first Black woman since Harris.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report misspelled the last name of former Senator Ted Kaufman.