Editorial: Butler should seek full Senate term

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday October 4, 2023
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Laphonza Butler is California's new U.S. senator. Photo: Via Governor Newsom's office
Laphonza Butler is California's new U.S. senator. Photo: Via Governor Newsom's office

Governor Gavin Newsom's selection of Black lesbian Laphonza Butler to replace the late senator Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate fulfilled his promise to pick a Black woman should he need to appoint someone. That Butler is the first LGBTQ woman of color in the Senate is a boost for the community, as queer people of color have long been underrepresented in politics in general, and Congress in particular. We think the best opportunity for a Black woman to remain in the Senate is for Butler to seek a full term in 2024. She will already be appearing on the primary ballot in March in a special election to complete Feinstein's term; she should announce her candidacy soon, as the filing deadline to run for the full term is December 8.

Yes, it will be tough for Butler to start so late in the process and it would upend the current race for Feinstein's seat as three current Democratic congressmembers — Barbara Lee of Oakland, Adam Schiff of Burbank, and Katie Porter of Irvine — are already deep into their own campaigns. (Feinstein had announced in February that she would not seek reelection next year.)

With Butler's experience serving as president of Emily's List, the powerhouse political organization that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to public office, and her deep ties to organized labor, her positions on working class issues fit within the progressive wing of the Democratic Party despite stints as a consultant for Uber and Airbnb. Butler is also a former top adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris back when she was running for president. While Butler lives in Maryland, Newsom stated that she owns a home in California and has re-registered to vote in the Golden State, satisfying residency requirements.

Reality on the ground

With all due respect to Lee, the only Black woman in the Senate race — and we've supported her and admired her actions, courage, and steadfast support for the LGBTQ community for decades — her campaign does not appear to be gaining traction. Among all likely voters, Schiff garnered 20% of the vote, followed by Porter (17%) and Lee (7%), according to a recent L.A. Times-Berkeley IGS poll, though about one-third of voters hadn't made up their minds. (https://escholarship.org/uc/item/78p1042g) Schiff is leading in fundraising and just reported raising $6.4 million in the third quarter of this year, ending the quarter with $32 million cash on hand, according to NBC News. Porter has about $10.3 million cash on hand and Lee reported $1.4 million, according to July campaign finance reports.

Lee's supporters have long said that she's an underdog and not to count her out. But the reality is that she's consistently been stuck in third place in this current campaign. Lee had hoped that Newsom would appoint her to Feinstein's seat, but that didn't happen.

Newsom's process

Speaking of Newsom, the whole messy process of replacing Feinstein was of his own making when he started it two years ago by promising to name a Black woman should he ever get another Senate appointment. He had angered Black women when he picked his ally, former California secretary of state Alex Padilla, a Latino man, to replace Harris when she resigned from the Senate to become vice president. The whole exercise showed Newsom's flaws, as San Francisco Chronicle columnist Emily Hoeven aptly noted. Frankly, Newsom should have never promised a selection from a specific group. Padilla became the state's first Latino senator, and that's important in a state where Latinos account for 40% of the population, according to Pew Research Center. But after Harris' departure there were no Black women in the chamber, so Newsom made his pledge.

Many Black progressives are upset that Newsom didn't choose Lee for this Senate vacancy. But she's already running and, while Newsom backtracked from a comment that he did not want someone who was not already in the race so as not to "tip" the balance, it was clear he was never going to select Lee. The two aren't close politically, and she and her supporters probably overplayed their hand with intense lobbying.

Newsom also had to walk back his statement that whomever he selected would serve on an interim basis and wouldn't seek a full term. As Erika D. Smith wrote in her Los Angeles Times column, "Newsom is under the delusion that there's a sizable pool of powerful Black women in California who are eager to put aside their own political ambitions and break ranks with the sisterhood to accept his offer to serve as an 'interim appointment' to the Senate. This caretaker would agree to merely finish out Feinstein's term and not run again — and make it harder to ensure there's a Black woman in the upper chamber at all."

On Sunday afternoon, just hours before he named Butler, it was reported that there would be no preconditions on the appointment. In other words, whomever Newsom selected could run for the seat next year if she wanted to.

Still, Butler should run

No one said politics was easy — or neat and tidy. Given everything that's transpired over the last several days, we still believe that Butler should seek a full term. A voice like hers is needed now more than ever in the Senate. As Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) said on the Senate floor Tuesday after Butler's swearing in, her appointment is a step toward making the body more representative of America. We'd like to see a powerful Black lesbian in the Senate, asking tough questions at hearings and fighting for everyday Americans and working families.

LGBTQ organizations have praised Butler's selection. "Today she shatters a rainbow ceiling in becoming the first out Black LGBTQ+ U.S. senator," stated the LGBTQ Victory Fund. "She will certainly be a champion for women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people in the U.S. Senate."

Perhaps Butler herself said it best, in a statement released by Newsom's office.

"No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Senator Dianne Feinstein, but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California," she stated. "I am ready to serve."

If Butler's good enough for Newsom to appoint her, she's good enough to run for the seat.

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