ANAHEIM, Calif. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom said late Sunday that he plans to appoint Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last week at the age of 90.
The interim appointment will extend until at least November 2024. Feinstein had planned to step down at the end of her term, in January 2025. Three of California’s top Democrats — Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff — are in a contentious primary contest for that seat, in what is likely to be the most expensive congressional race in the nation next year. The appointment helps Democrats retain control of the Senate.
In announcing his decision Sunday night on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, Newsom noted that Butler will make history as the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the U.S. Senate. “Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people,” he said.
“From her time as President of EMILY’s List to leading the state’s largest labor union, she has always stood up for what is right and has led with her heart and her values,” Newsom said in his statement. “I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”
Butler has deep ties in the labor movement after decades working in a variety of roles. Before heading Emily’s List, the fundraising powerhouse group that has worked to support Democratic women up and down the ballot, she served as the president of SEIU Local 2015, a union that represented 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout California. She previously served as an SEIU international vice president and headed SEIU United Long Term Care Workers.
She has worked closely with key advisers to Newsom (D). In 2019 and 2020, she was a partner at a firm that was then known as SCRB Strategies — now known as BearStar Strategies — with top Newsom consultants Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez. The firm’s clients at the time included Newsom and Sen. Kamala D. Harris before she became vice president. Butler has long been a close ally of Harris, helping her line up support among the labor unions when she ran for California attorney general.
Laphonza has posted publicly about her pride in becoming the first Black lesbian to serve as president of Emily’s List. When she is sworn in, she will join a small but growing number of members of Congress who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) became the first openly gay U.S. Senator when she was elected in 2012, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) is the first openly bisexual member of the Senate.
With the appointment, Newsom, who is widely viewed as a future White House contender, fulfilled the promise he made in 2021 to appoint a Black woman to the chamber.
He made that pledge shortly after appointing Alex Padilla to fill Harris’s Senate seat as she headed to Washington to serve as vice president. Padilla became the first Latino senator to represent California, but Harris’s departure meant there were no longer any Black women serving in the Senate. Butler will be the only Black female senator.
As Feinstein’s health declined in recent years and questions swirled about whether she would leave before her term ended, Newsom considered some of the highest-ranking Black politicians in California as potential replacements.
Those under consideration included Lee, who has served in the House since 1998 and is the highest-ranking African American woman appointed to House Democratic leadership; Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, a former congresswoman and former speaker of the California State Assembly; and Secretary of State Shirley Weber, whom Newsom appointed to replace Padilla in 2021.
Newsom faced an increasingly complex situation after Feinstein announced in February that she would not seek reelection — accelerating the fierce battle to replace her.
Though Lee initially would have been a natural choice for the appointment, Newsom indicated to allies that he did not want to unfairly tip the balance in an ongoing race among three Democrats. He publicly confirmed that thinking during a recent NBC interview in which he said he would not choose anyone already running for Feinstein’s seat.
Newsom’s comments on NBC were interpreted by Lee’s allies as an assertion that he planned to ask his appointee to serve in a caretaking role. But people familiar with his thinking said he has not set any of those kinds of preconditions in his conversations with potential appointees.
Still, his comment that he would make an “interim appointment” angered some allies on the left who had urged him to appoint a Black woman to the Senate and felt there should not be any implied constraints over that person’s ability to seek a full Senate term. Schiff, who is White, is widely viewed as the front-runner in the race to become the next senator from California because he is far ahead of his rivals in fundraising and endorsements.
The pressure continued to mount for Newsom over the weekend to choose Lee, even though that move would upset many powerful allies of Schiff. They include influential California Democratic donors to Schiff who would be helpful to Newsom’s future White House aspirations, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former House speaker who is Schiff’s most prominent backer.
Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford, a Democrat from Nevada, sent a letter to Newsom on Sunday urging him to choose Lee for the role, stating that “her unparalleled legislative record, long-standing leadership in the Democratic Party and deep commitment to justice and equality cannot be equaled.”
Powerful liberal leaders, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), also weighed in on the appointment by voicing support for Lee after Feinstein’s death was announced early Friday.
“Nobody deserves an appointment to the Senate more than @BarbaraLeeForCA,” Jayapal said on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
“She has inspired millions & done the work. Why is it that when a Black woman seeks appointment, she can only be a caretaker? This was not the standard for Newsom’s last appointment,” Jayapal wrote, alluding to his appointment of Padilla to the Senate in 2020, “and it shouldn’t be now.”
Newsom’s choices also narrowed because some potential candidates who are also close allies of Lee indicated they would not accept the appointment if she was passed over. Lee has strong relationships with Bass, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell, who all hold powerful positions that they were committed to keeping.
In a statement late Sunday night, Lee said she wished Butler well and looked forward to working closely with her to “deliver for the people of the Golden State.”
Lee added that she is “singularly focused” on winning her campaign for Senate and that “no one should underestimate our unprecedented grassroots campaign, which is growing in momentum every day.”
Butler’s social media says she currently lives in Maryland, but she is a former resident of Los Angeles and owns a house in California. She will re-register to vote in California before she is sworn in, according to the governor’s office.
With her appointment, Democrats will continue to hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate. Democrats have 48 seats, and three independent members generally vote with Democrats.
Pager reported from Washington.