After three decades of service in the U.S. Senate, 90-year-old Dianne Feinstein died on Thursday night in Washington, D.C. Senator Feinstein’s death spurred nationwide reflections on her legacy, which, in true American political fashion, were accompanied by frenzied speculation about her successor. On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom put the guesswork to rest, naming Laphonza Butler as his Senate appointee.
Butler, president of EMILY's List and a seasoned political strategist, has worked with high-profile politicians, including Kamala Harris and Hillary Clinton, in various capacities. Her appointment fulfills Newsom's earlier pledge to appoint a Black woman to the Senate seat, should it become vacant. Laphonza Butler also has now become the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate, and the first Black lesbian to serve in the chamber.
Despite some recent backlash surrounding her residence in Maryland (which she maintained in order to conduct her work with EMILY’s List), Butler’s California ties affirm her qualification for the role. Butler moved to California in 2009, where she began to organize caregivers and nurses in various leadership roles for Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She served as a California elector in the 2016 presidential election, and she served on the Regents of the University of California for three years.
In spite of Butler’s qualifications, reactions to her appointment have been largely influenced by the looming Democratic primary for Feinstein’s seat. Three prominent California Democrats will vie for the nomination: Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff. Much of the criticism surrounding Butler’s appointment comes from Lee’s supporters, who had hoped she would have been the Black woman Newsom chose as Feinstein’s replacement.
Rep Barbara Lee has represented California’s 12th (previously 13th) district for 25 years. She is an advocate for Black women, having broken glass ceilings numerous times herself, becoming the first Black woman elected to the California State Assembly and California Senate from Northern California. Progressives remember Lee fondly, as she cast the only vote against authorization for the use of military Force (AUMF) against Iraq in 2001.
Lee’s ongoing campaign to represent California in the U.S. Senate emphasizes the value of her viewpoint as a Black woman. The campaign’s official website advertises that Lee would be “the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate and the only Black senator from California, bringing a much-needed voice to policymaking in D.C.” On October 1, the CBC released an open letter to Governor Newson, urging the appointment of Congresswoman Lee to Senator Feinstein’s seat.
These arguments, however likely they may be to influence the imminent Democratic primary for the seat, did not sway Governor Newsom, who hinted a month ago that he would not select Barbara Lee for the vacancy, claiming that he did not want to sway the primary. Since Butler’s appointment, Lee has expressed well wishes for the appointee, stating her singular focus on her campaign for Senate. However, Lee and others have also insinuated that Newson chose Butler as a token Black woman to appoint instead of appointing a Black woman with congressional experience.
But Lee’s supporters were not the only political actors interested in Newsom’s decision. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi endorsed Adam Schiff – who solidified his position in the party during Trump’s first impeachment — to succeed Feinstein after her final term. The Speaker Emerita’s family has a long-term relationship with the late Senator Feinstein, and Pelosi’s eldest daughter served as Feinstein’s caretaker for her last months in the chamber. This relationship has spurred rumors that Pelosi had undue influence on Feinstein’s decision to remain in office despite concerns regarding her mental fitness. As one Pelosi family confidant told Playbook, a Feinstein resignation would have enabled the appointment of Schiff’s opponent Barbara Lee. There is no question that a Lee appointment would have made Schiff’s election prospects much dimmer. Might Newsom have switched his pick so as not to upset the former speaker? It’s hard to say, but, after all, Newsom and Pelosi are distant relatives and both heavyweights in California politics.
What remains to be seen is how much Laphonza Butler’s short tenure in the Senate will impact the upcoming race between Lee, Porter, and Schiff. Pessimists of California’s racial order should fear that the discourse surrounding Butler’s race and sexuality will narrow Lee’s chances as less progressive Californians may tire of the argument that one’s demographic characteristics qualify one for office. At the moment, the situation is not great for Lee. According to a recent poll, she trails both Schiff and Porter by a considerable margin.