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Butler, the newest senator, worked to elect and defeat many colleagues

Abortion rights activist, ex-labor leader named to fill Feinstein’s seat

Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY’s List, has been named to fill the remainder of the late California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term in the Senate.
Laphonza Butler, the president of EMILY’s List, has been named to fill the remainder of the late California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term in the Senate. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

California Democrat Laphonza Butler, who will be sworn in Tuesday as the newest senator, worked to support and defeat many of her future colleagues as the leader of the abortion rights fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom selected Butler to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who died last week at the age of 90.  

Butler said no one can replace Feinstein, who served in the Senate for three decades. But she pledged to do her best to “honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California.”

Butler will become the first Black woman in the Senate since fellow California Democrat Kamala Harris left the chamber in 2021 to become vice president. Newsom, a Democrat, named Democrat Alex Padilla to fill that seat and had pledged at the time to name a Black woman if he had a chance to fill another.

“She will make history — becoming the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the U.S. Senate,” Newsom said in announcing Butler’s appointment. “From her time as President of EMILY’s List to leading the state’s largest labor union, she has always stood up for what is right and has led with her heart and her values. I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”

The announcement adds a new wrinkle into the crowded and expensive contest to succeed Feinstein, whose term runs through Jan. 3, 2025. Three House Democrats — Barbara Lee, the sole Black woman among the top tier of candidates, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff — are running in the March 5 primary for a full six-year term, along with Democrat Lexi Reese, a retired Google executive, as well as several Republicans. Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, the top two finishers will face each other in November. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Solid Democratic.

Newsom had said he would not pick one of the candidates currently running, despite a push by Lee’s supporters to select her, because he did not want to give any of the contenders an edge. There is, however, nothing to preclude Butler from seeking a full term.

Butler’s interim appointment will run until a senator can be picked in a to-be-scheduled special election, the candidates for which will be chosen in a special primary. All candidates running for the full term that starts in 2025 can also run in the special races, and the state could hold simultaneous primaries in March and general elections in November 2024 for the unexpired term and full term. A similar system was used in 2022 when Padilla ran and won both the special election for the remainder of Harris’ term and a full six-year term.

Lee focused on election

On social media, Lee wished Butler well but said she remains “singularly focused” on winning the Senate seat. California “deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities,” Lee said. “That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”

Butler, who will become just the third Black woman ever to serve in the chamber, won praise from several top Democrats. Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called her “a lifelong champion for women and girls and working families” who will honor Feinstein’s legacy.

The Congressional Black Caucus, which had publicly urged Newsom to appoint Lee, issued a statement congratulating Butler on her appointment. “As the first lesbian Black woman in the U.S. Senate, Laphonza will bring an important perspective to the upper house at a time when the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack,’’ said Rep. Steven Horsford, the Nevada Democrat who chairs the CBC.

The LGBTQ+ Victory Institute praised her appointment, saying it “shatters a rainbow ceiling” and signifies “a big step forward in our push for a more representative government.” About 5.3 percent of California’s population identifies as LGBT, among the highest of any state, according to the Williams Institute.

EMILY’s List, which stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast, works to prepare and support Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights. It spent $4.4 million in the 2022 election cycle, according to The top recipient, at $537,000, was Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, while Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire got $470,000. The group also raised and spent $495,000 for Cheri Beasley, who lost to North Carolina Republican Sen. Ted Budd; and $383,000 to back former Rep. Val B. Demings of Florida, who lost a challenge to Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. An additional $3.4 million went to a super PAC, Women Vote!

The group had also begun backing candidates for 2024, announcing in March its support for 18 House incumbents whose races are expected to be crucial in determining control of the chamber.

Butler worked as a senior adviser to Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign, was a member of the University of California Board of Regents and spent 20 years in the labor movement, including serving as president of the home care workers union in California, SEIU Local 2015.

As a business and political consultant, Butler also advised Airbnb and Uber in its dealings with organized labor on employment matters.  

Butler, whose father died when she was 16, grew up in Mississippi and attended Jackson State University. She lives with her partner and their daughter in Maryland but owns a home in California and will register to vote there.

Newsom’s decision to fill the Senate vacancy quickly gives Democrats, who had an operating majority of 51-49 before Feinstein’s death, a bit of breathing room.

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