UPDATED: 8 a.m. ET, Oct. 2
Originally published on Sept. 29
Laphonza Butler is all but guaranteed to become the third-ever Black woman U.S. Senator after being selected by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the seat of longtime Sen. Dianne Feinstein who died on Friday.
Newsom announced on Sunday night that Butler was his choice, fulfilling his pledge to nominate a Black woman if there was ever a Senate vacancy. He was expected to make the formal announcement at some point on Monday, according to Politico.
Butler, 44, is the president of EMILY’s List, a political organization that works to elect women candidates who are also abortion rights advocates. She will likely be sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris, a former U.S. Senator from California who is also president of the U.S. Senate and the last Black woman to serve as U.S. Senator.
Butler is expected to be named Feinstein’s “interim” replacement through the 2024 election, in which she can also run as a candidate in an effort to keep her seat.
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Butler is a veteran organizer and well-known in Newsom’s orbit. He contemplated hiring the Southern Mississippi native to be his first chief of staff, and she was a one-time partner in the San Francisco-based consulting firm, now known as Bearstar Strategies, with his top political advisers. She has remained a confidant of Vice President Kamala Harris, after serving as a senior strategist on her 2020 presidential campaign.
Butler, who is based in Washington and maintains close ties with Los Angeles, had a stint as director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb and spent nearly two decades as a powerful and well-respected labor leader with the Service Employees International Union. As president of SEIU California, she worked closely with then-Gov. Jerry Brown on policies like hiking the minimum wage to $15 per hour and raising taxes for wealthy Californians. She also served on the University of California Board of Regents, to which she was appointed by Brown in 2018 before stepping down in 2021.
Butler is the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate.
Feinstein died at 90 following more than three decades on Capitol Hill as the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate. The cause of her death was not immediately reported, but her health had come under increasing scrutiny in recent months, during which time she had missed dozens of votes.
Some of that scrutiny led to speculation about her future in the Senate that ultimately prompted Newsom in May to publicly pledge to fill Feinstein’s seat, if necessary, on an interim basis with a Black woman. Feinstein had already announced she would not seek reelection next year.
After the election of then-California Sen. Harris as Vice President of the United States in 2020, Newsom filled her seat by nominating Alex Padilla, who became the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate. But that nomination also left the same U.S. Senate without a Black woman – a truth that has lingered for more than three years now – which is partially why Newsom said he would nominate a Black woman should another Senate vacancy arise.
In 2021 during an interview on MSNBC, Newsom was asked directly if he would nominate a Black woman if he had the opportunity.
“The answer is yes,” Newsom replied.
Fast forward to September 2023 and notable U.S. Congressmembers – including Rep. Barbara Lee, a Black woman – are among the candidates campaigning to fill Feinstein’s seat in the general election next year.
That’s likely why Newsom, just weeks ago, clarified that not only would he make an “interim appointment” of a Black woman for any Senate vacancy but the person he chose would not be an existing candidate for Feinstein’s seat.
Newsom’s response was “insulting,” Lee said.
“The idea that a Black woman should be appointed only as a caretaker to simply check a box is insulting to countless Black women across this country who have carried the Democratic Party to victory election after election,” Lee responded. “Black women deserve more than a participation trophy. We need a seat at the table.”
Also responding to Newsom’s comments, Glynda C. Carr, President and CEO of Higher Heights, offered a similar sentiment as Lee’s.
“The sentiments of Gov. Newsom are a slap in the face to the Black women making the progress this country needs,” Carr said in a recent email to NewsOne. “The perspective of Black women in the U.S. Senate is sorely needed — and needed for more than a few months. Gov. Newsom knows this, which is why he made the pledge in the first place.”
Newsom’s appointment of Padilla was also seen as him thumbing his nose at the Black Lives Matter movement, which called for a Black woman to fill Harris’ seat in a “non-negotiable” demand that emphasized why Senate representation by an African American woman is so important.
Newsom’s choice seemingly reinforced the common political and patriarchal narrative that men get to decide that women must wait patiently for their turns at the back of the line. The fact that the decision was made by a white man, in particular, only hammered home that point even more. While Harris decidedly shattered the glass ceiling back in 2017 when she became just the second Black woman senator in the United States’ history, Newsom at least partially rebuilt it Tuesday, critics suggested.
At the time, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Black woman, made no qualms about her true feelings on the “unfortunate” matter.
“This is a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general, and I think it’s really challenging to put it in words,” Breed, the city’s first Black woman mayor, told the Associated Press.
The Black Lives Matter movement previously posted an online petition explaining why it was so important for Newsom to appoint a Black woman, in particular.
“Appointing a Black woman to this seat is nonnegotiable — this must be done. Our government is about representation of the people, and as we saw in this election, Black people, and more specifically Black women, are constantly showing up for democracy,” the group said in part of a statement accompanied with the petition. “If there is not a single Black woman in the Senate, then the Senate is simply not a proper representation of the people.”
Butler will be the third-ever Black woman to be a U.S. Senator, following Harris and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois.
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