California governor chooses labor leader and Democratic insider to fill Feinstein's Senate seat

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom needed to fill the U.S. Senate seat of his late mentor Dianne Feinstein, he could have turned to a big-city mayor, a member of Congress or a powerful legislator

Michael R. Blood,Adam Beam
Monday 02 October 2023 23:27 BST

When California Gov. Gavin Newsom needed to fill the U.S. Senate seat of his late mentor Dianne Feinstein, he could have turned to a big-city mayor, a member of Congress or a powerful legislator.

Instead, he chose Laphonza Butler, a former union leader and Democratic insider who heads a national organization that raises money for women candidates who support abortion rights. She offered a familiar face who shares his vision for a progressive California. In choosing Butler, he also elevated someone who could become an important ally for a potential national campaign that many see in his future.

Once she is sworn in, Butler will be the only Black woman in the Senate and the first openly LGBTQ+ California senator. That, alongside her background in the labor and women's rights movements, helps harden Newsom’s ties to important national Democratic constituencies.

Speaking to reporters Monday in San Francisco, Newsom praised Butler's “deep knowledge” of the legislative process and said she was the kind of candidate he would build “if I had to literally design from my imagination.”

“She’s the only choice,” he added.

Few voters outside workaday Democratic politics would recognize her name, but Butler is well known inside the party apparatus. Her credentials include working for nearly two years with a consulting firm tied closely to the governor and founded by his top political lieutenants. She also served as a senior adviser to Kamala Harris's 2020 presidential campaign and headed Emily’s List, the abortion rights group.

While Newsom could have sought a marquee name to fill the seat, “a comfort level is important. Any governor might be a little hesitant about somebody with too many degrees of separation,” said Claremont McKenna College political scientist Jack Pitney.

But Newsom's choice will not be universally welcome. A competitive race for Feinstein's seat is already underway among three prominent House Democrats, Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee, who is Black. The governor has said he didn't want to tip the scales in the 2024 race by choosing among those candidates.

Butler has not said if she intends to run for a full term, a decision she must make by Dec. 8.

Newsom said he told Butler to "do what you think is best for you and the state of California, and you make that judgment completely independent of any expectations from me.”

Her selection drew swift criticism from Republicans, who have long struggled in a liberal-leaning state where Democrats haven’t lost a statewide election since 2006.

“The last thing we need are more union activists in government,” tweeted GOP Assemblyman Bill Essayli.

Butler has yet to appear in public since the appointment was announced by Newsom’s office Sunday. She is expected to be sworn in Tuesday in Washington by Harris, the last Black woman to serve in the Senate.

“For women and girls, for workers and unions, for struggling parents waiting for our leaders to bring opportunity back to their homes, for all of California, I’m ready to serve,” she said in a statement.

Newsom faced intense pressure from Black political leaders and advocacy groups to appoint Lee to the seat after he pledged to name a Black woman should Feinstein be unable to finish her term. Though most of those groups praised Butler, their displeasure at Newsom for snubbing Lee is likely to simmer.

State Sen. Steven Bradford, vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, said he was disappointed Newsom bypassed Lee, “who is simply unmatched in her values, vision and lived experiences.”

Aimee Allison, who founded She the People, a political advocacy network for women of color that also supported Lee, said in a statement she would be “delighted by the prospect of multiple talented Black women running for the Senate” in California and elsewhere.

Ballots for the March 5 primary will be mailed to voters in early February, leaving just a narrow window for Butler to raise money in a state where a statewide campaign can easily cost $20 million or more.

Butler, 44, comes from a working-class family. Her father, a small-business owner, died from a terminal illness when she was 16. Her mother worked as a classroom aide, a home care provider, a security guard and a bookkeeper while caring for Butler and her two siblings, the governor's office said.

She has never held public office.

Butler was elected president of the state’s largest labor union in the early 2010s, back when the nation was reeling from the Great Recession.

“Laphonza had this ability to get to what was in people’s hearts,” said Arnuflo De La Cruz, the union’s current president who at the time was elected with Butler as the union’s executive vice president. “She could connect with members from completely different backgrounds in all places across the state.”

That work culminated in 2016 when former Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to raise the statewide minimum wage to $15 per hour. De La Cruz said Butler was the union’s chief negotiator.

“The ability to be effective in politics is maybe a little bit about perception but certainly a lot about strength and your ability to elect people or unseat them,” De La Cruz said.

Butler left the labor movement for campaign consulting, joining a firm alongside top advisers to Newsom and Harris. She was a senior adviser on Harris's campaign for president, which started to much fanfare but fizzled as she struggled to raise money and hone her message.

Butler has also worked for corporate clients including Airbnb and Uber.

Newsom, who was elected governor in 2018, has now chosen both of the state’s U.S. senators. The selection of Butler bears resemblance to the last time, when he tapped his close friend and confidant for the job, now-Sen. Alex Padilla.

At the time, Newsom was under pressure to select a Black woman to fill the seat of Harris, who is Black. His choice of Padilla, the state’s first Latino senator, rankled Black leadership in the state who saw the seat as their own.


Beam reported from Sacramento.

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