Surprise Senate appointment could upend California’s political order | Courthouse News Service
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Surprise Senate appointment could upend California’s political order

Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler, a longtime union organizer and current executive director of EMILY's List, to fill the vacancy left by the recently deceased Dianne Feinstein.

(CN) — When California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Laphonza Butler to replace U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died last week, he kept one promise and broke another.

Newsom had promised to appoint a Black woman to serve out the last 15 months or so of Feinstein's six-year term. He had also promised to appoint a caretaker, so as to not to interfere with the election to replace Feinstein, which is already well underway, since she'd announced her retirement months ago. Observers had drawn up a list of possibilities, including California Secretary of State Shirley Weber and LA County Supervisor Holly Mitchell. Butler wasn't on anybody's radar.

Which is not to say that she is a complete unknown.

"She’s one of the least-known important people in politics," said Raphael Sonenshein, a longtime political commentator who now serves as executive director of the Haynes Foundation. "She is a major figure in the California Democratic Party, and probably increasingly in the national party. She’s not someone who comes out of nowhere. She’s young, but she’s had a very, very strong career."

Butler, 44, was a longtime union organizer who served as president of SEIU local 2015, which represents long-term healthcare workers. She was later elected as president of SEIU's state council, where she was involved in the push to raise California's minimum wage. After she left the union, she did consulting work for Uber and briefly worked for Airbnb — gigs that have now become reasons to criticize her. In 2021, she became the president of EMILY's List, an organization that raises money for female candidates in favor of abortion rights (that job caused her to move to Maryland, though she still owns a home in California).

She's also a lesbian, placing her at the nexus of the biggest issues and interest groups in the Democratic party: LGBTQ+ rights, unions and abortion rights. Which is one reason why many have hailed her appointment as a shrewd move by the ambitious Newsom.

"It’s a brilliant political stroke," said Mike Madrid, a political consultant and co-founder of the Lincoln Project. "You have an African American woman, a lesbian, a national leader on abortion rights, a union leader. And she's not beholden to any other political interest outside of Gavin Newsom's orbit. She’s now a U.S. senator because of one person."

Some had questioned the wisdom of Newsom's promises to appoint a Black woman. The pledge was widely seen as recompense for having appointed a Latino man, Alex Padilla, to replace Kamala Harris. Others (including the Congressional Black Caucus) urged Newsom to appoint longtime Northern California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is already running for the seat.

Still others wondered if Newsom might appoint Lee but wait until after the Dec. 8 filing deadline, thus making her unable to identify herself as the incumbent on the ballot. But with the Senate so evenly divided, a delay might endanger key judicial appointments.

In the end, Newsom decided not to cave in to the pressure to appoint Lee, and instead named Butler, who has never held political office and has been living out of state. Not only that, but he said he had not asked Butler to stay out of the race, leaving her free to run next year as an incumbent.

Butler hasn't commented on her plans. On Monday, when asked by a reporter, her spokesperson declined to offer any insight, saying, "This week Laphonza is focused on respecting and honoring Senator Feinstein’s legacy and getting ready to serve the people of California in the Senate. Politics can wait."

Technically, Butler has until Dec. 8, the filing deadline, to make a decision.

"If I were in her shoes, I think you’d want to go and see what the job entails before you’d make a permanent decision," said political consultant Mike Trujillo.

She would face stiff competition. The race is already filled with heavyweights, none more so than Congressman Adam Schiff, who announced Monday he's amassed an impressive campaign war chest of $32 million, made possible in no small part by the frequent attacks on him made by former President Donald Trump. Congresswoman Katie Porter has also gained a large following thanks largely to video clips of her confronting various figures, like pharmaceutical executives, during congressional hearings.

A poll taken last month had Schiff leading the pack with 20%, Porter just behind him with 17%, and Lee in a distant third with 7%. Two Republicans are also running; Steve Garvey, a former baseball player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is also said to be considering a run as a Republican. The two candidates who finish first and second in the March 2024 primary will face off in the November general election.

If Butler did decide to run for a full six-year term, she would become a front-runner, if not the front-runner, practically overnight.

For one thing, her ballot designation would read "U.S. senator," which counts for quite a lot with voters. And she would have the ability to raise a lot of money quickly, thanks in part to her connections with SEIU and EMILY's List. She would likely have the endorsement of Newsom, and perhaps even of Vice President Kamala Harris, whom she once advised. She might even get the biggest endorsement of all — President Joe Biden.

"She has a pretty strong network," said Sonenshein, "and a lot of support around the communities that drive the Democratic party."

Butler is expected to be sworn in Tuesday. When she is, the Senate will have four Black members — the most it's ever had.

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