Newsom names Butler, Black lesbian, to Feinstein's Senate seat

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Monday October 2, 2023
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Laphonza Butler has been appointed by Gavin Newsom to replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. Photo: Courtesy UC Regents
Laphonza Butler has been appointed by Gavin Newsom to replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. Photo: Courtesy UC Regents

Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday named Laphonza Butler, a Black lesbian and president of Emily's List, to replace Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate.

Butler, a longtime senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris, labor leader, and advocate for women and working people, will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate. She will also be the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress in American history and the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate following Harris, according to a statement from Newsom's office

"An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she'll represent us proudly in the United States Senate," Newsom stated. "As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C."

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor and the longest-serving woman in the Senate, died September 29 at her home in Washington, D.C. She was 90.

With her selection to the Senate, Butler will step down from her role as president of Emily's List, where she was the first woman of color and mother to lead the organization, the announcement stated. The organization advocates for Democratic pro-choice women in politics. Prior to joining Emily's List, Butler ran political campaigns and led strategy efforts for numerous companies, organizations, and elected leaders — including for Harris and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. For more than a decade, she served as the president of the largest labor union in California — Service Employees International Union Local 2015 — a union representing more than 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout the state, according to Newsom's announcement.

Butler served on the UC Board of Regents from 2018 to 2021.

Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, praised the selection.

"Laphonza Butler is eminently qualified to represent California well in the United States Senate and we are thrilled to congratulate her," stated Tony Hoang, a gay man. "This historic appointment by Governor Newsom will give our LGBTQ+ community another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country. We look forward to working with Laphonza as she steps into this new role and continues her lifelong fight for our shared values of equity, freedom and justice for all."

Gay Congressmember Mark Takano (D-Riverside), the first out member of Congress from California and the first LGBTQ person of color elected to Congress, stated that he was excited by Butler's appointment.

"For the first time in our nation's history, queer people of color have representation in both chambers of Congress," Takano stated. "As the first out person of color to serve in Congress, I am thrilled that Californians and all queer people of color have in Laphonza Butler a leader that can speak and legislate to the experiences of our community.

"Laphonza Butler's appointment to complete the term of Senator Feinstein has cemented this seat for trailblazers and history makers," he added. "I look forward to working with her to solve the challenges facing California and our country."

The National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBTQ and same-gender-loving organization, also hailed the appointment.

"We are elated to celebrate the groundbreaking appointment of Laphonza Butler to the United States Senate," stated David Johns, NBJC's executive director. "This historic decision not only shatters glass ceilings but also underscores the importance of continued progress in expanding representation for the Black and LGBTQ+/same-gender loving community in our nation's capital.

"Butler's appointment as California's first openly LGBTQ+ United States senator is an extraordinary milestone," Johns added.

Lesbian state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) called Butler "an excellent choice."

"As someone who has effectively fought for the rights of women and working people throughout her career, Laphonza Butler is an outstanding choice to serve California in the U.S. Senate," Atkins stated. "I am grateful to Laphonza — an incredible leader and friend — for stepping up and agreeing to take on this important role."

It was not immediately clear whether Butler would seek the Senate seat next year. Before her death, Feinstein had announced in February that she would not seek reelection in 2024. Currently, three California Democratic congressmembers — Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine, and Barbara Lee of Oakland — are the leading candidates in the race.

Newsom had previously promised to appoint a Black woman to the Senate should a vacancy occur. After Harris stepped down in 2021 to become vice president, Newsom named Alex Padilla (D), a Latino man, to the seat.

In a statement, Padilla said he looks forward to working with Butler

"Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women's representation in politics," Padilla stated. "I'm honored to welcome her to the United States Senate.

"Governor Newsom's swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority," he added. "I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California."

But more recently, Newsom said he would not appoint one of the candidates running to succeed Feinstein, saying he didn't want to interfere in the Senate campaign and that he would appoint a caretaker if the need arose. That angered Lee, who is Black, and many of her supporters, who felt that she should have been named to the Senate if a vacancy arose. After Feinstein's death, that became a reality.

Lee currently trails Schiff and Porter in polls and in fundraising, according to recent reports.

On Sunday, just hours before he named Butler to the seat, it was reported that Newsom had backtracked from his caretaker comment and that there were no preconditions on the person committing not to run. (An appointee could run anyway, as there's nothing to stop them from seeking election.)

Butler received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Jackson State University. Butler is married to her wife, Neneki, and together they have a daughter, Nylah. They live in Maryland.

Updated, 10/2/23: This article has been updated with comments from Senator Alex Padilla, state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins, and Congressmember Mark Takano.

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