As the House devolved into chaos Tuesday over the future of the speakership, the mood in the Senate was decidedly more buoyant as California Democrat Laphonza Butler was sworn in to replace the late Dianne Feinstein, who died last week.
Butler entered the chamber to cheers from her family in the gallery, surrounded by Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., as she was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris.
“This is a historic moment for the Senate, for California and for the entire country,” Schumer said from the floor following the swearing-in. “Sen. Butler is only the third Black woman in American history to serve in the United States Senate. She’s the first openly lesbian senator from California, and she’s the first openly LGBTQ senator of color to serve in this body. Today, the Senate takes another step toward fully reflecting our vibrant democracy.”
“I know that our old colleague is looking down at this moment with pride now that her seat is in good hands,” he added.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Butler’s appointment Sunday. Butler, who was most recently president of the abortion rights fundraising group EMILY’s List, becomes the first Black woman in the Senate since Harris left in 2021.
She’ll serve in an interim role until a senator is chosen through a special primary to fill out the duration of Feinstein’s term, which is up on Jan. 3, 2025. A date has not yet been announced for the special primary.
Her appointment as California’s newest senator raises political questions, as a group of heavy hitters in the House vie for the position.
Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff are running in the regular March 5 primary for a full six-year term, along with fellow Democrat Lexi Reese, a retired Google executive, and several Republicans. Under the state’s nonpartisan primary system, the top two finishers will face off in November. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Solid Democratic.
Lee, the lone Black woman in the top tier of the race, had hoped for the appointment nod after Feinstein’s death, and her allies in Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus, had appealed to Newsom on her behalf. But Newsom opted for someone not currently in the race to avoid giving an incumbent the edge in next year’s general election.
Butler hasn’t made her political ambitions clear, but nothing would stop her from joining the race herself and seeking a full term.
A special primary to fill out the rest of Feinstein’s term would be followed by a special election. Those special elections could be scheduled to coincide with the March regular primary and November general election for a full six-year term. Whatever the timing, Californians will vote four times for senator next year and could have as many as three different senators in quick succession.
A similar system was used in 2022, when Padilla, who was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Harris when she assumed the vice presidency, ran and won both the special election for the remainder of Harris’ term and a full six-year term.
As she arrives on Capitol Hill, Butler will work alongside members of Congress she once helped as president of EMILY’s List, whose name stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. The political action committee, which seeks to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, spent $4.4 million in the 2022 election cycle, according to opensecrets.org.
The group shelled out significant sums to Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. EMILY’s List also backed Cheri Beasley, who lost to North Carolina Republican Sen. Ted Budd, along with former Rep. Val B. Demings of Florida, who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Republican Sen. Marco Rubio. The group also gave $3.4 million to a super PAC, Women Vote! EMILY’s List announced in March its support for 18 House incumbents whose races could determine control of the chamber.
Before joining EMILY’s List, 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.
Butler grew up in Mississippi and attended Jackson State University. She had been living in Maryland with her partner and their daughter but owns a home in California and has said she will register to vote there.
While Democrats have largely celebrated Butler’s appointment, some House Republicans had raised questions about her residency.
“So many Californians have left the state during Gavin Newsom’s time in office, he had to go to Maryland to find our next Senator,” California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Herb Jackson and Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.