Laphonza Butler Tapped to Fill Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat

California Gov. Gavin Newsom picked the leader of EMILY’s List for the seat, fulfilling a promise to name a Black woman to the Senate.

Laphonza Butler address a Biden-Harris campaign rally on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson, on June 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

This article was originally published by The 19th.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday named Laphonza Butler, the first Black woman to lead EMILY’s List, to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. The news of Newsom’s expected move was first reported by Politico

Butler was named two years ago to lead EMILY’s List, which works to elect Democratic women who support abortion access, and has led the organization through the end of federal abortion rights. 

“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate,” Newsom said in a statement.

The appointment is an interim one. The state will hold a special primary and election for someone to serve the rest of Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025. The special election would be quickly followed by a regular primary and regular election for the seat. 

Butler is a veteran organizer, union leader and Democratic strategist who served as a senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2020 presidential campaign. At 30, Butler led the country’s largest home care workers’ union and the biggest union in California, SEIU Local 2015, where she fought to raise the state minimum wage to $15 an hour. 

Newsom promised in 2021 that he would name a Black woman should Feinstein vacate her seat. That came after he faced blowback when he appointed Alex Padilla, who is Latino, to fill the seat left vacant by Harris, who had been the only Black woman in the Senate. 

The Senate currently has no Black women, and only two Black women have ever served in the body: Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois from 1993 to 1999, and Harris from 2017 to 2021.  

Butler will also be the first openly LGBTQ+ senator from California.

In a statement via EMILY’s List, from which she is stepping down, Butler said she was “honored” to accept the nomination to serve in the Senate from a state she had “long called home.”

“For women and girls, for workers and unions, for struggling parents waiting for our leaders to bring opportunity back to their homes, for all of California, I’m ready to serve,” Butler said.

Rebecca Haile, the chair of EMILY’s List, praised Butler, saying: “EMILYs List was created to get more Democratic pro-choice women in government and I am thrilled to see my friend put that into action by taking on this role. As a labor leader, the only Black woman in the Senate and the first Black LGBTQ+ senator, I know Laphonza will bring all of us into the Senate with her as she does the critical work of ensuring our government works for and represents all of us.”

Butler on Friday posted a statement about the death of Feinstein, calling her “a titan in the Senate, but a legendary figure for women in politics and around the country.”

Feinstein had already announced she would not seek reelection, sparking a crowded race to replace her. In an interview last month on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Newsom said he would not wade into the contentious 2024 primary, though he signaled he would fulfill his promise to appoint a Black woman. 

The announcement was seen as a snub to Rep. Barbara Lee, a Black woman who represents a district anchored in Oakland. She is one of three Democratic House members vying to replace Feinstein. 

“I am troubled by the governor’s remarks. 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 said after Newsom’s interview last month on X, the social platform known as Twitter.

Lee has trailed fellow Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter in polling and fundraising. 

“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

Higher Heights for America, an influential political group dedicated to electing Black women to political office, on Friday urged Newsom to appoint Lee. On Monday, they released a statement celebrating Butler’s appointment.

“Voices such as Butler’s are needed in the halls of Congress to advance progress on the critical issues that voters are demanding action on,” Higher Heights said in the statement.

On Sunday, Rep. Steven Horsford, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, wrote a letter to Newsom calling Lee “the only person with the courage, the vision, and the record to eradicate poverty, face down the fossil fuel industry, defend our democracy, and tirelessly advance the progressive agenda.”

EMILY’s List has not yet endorsed a candidate in the California Senate race. 

Feinstein’s death brings Democrats’ majority in the Senate to 50 votes next to Republicans’ 49 votes. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey is facing calls to resign, raising the possibility of that margin shrinking further. 

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About , and

Grace Panetta is a political reporter at The 19th. She previously worked at Insider for four years covering politics with a focus on elections and voting. She holds a degree in political science from Barnard College.
Mel Leonor Barclay is a political reporter. She has a decade of experience covering government and elections, from tiny South Florida localities to Congress. Most recently, Leonor Barclay was a Virginia politics reporter at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, and previously covered federal policy at POLITICO. Leonor Barclay is an immigrant of the Dominican Republic and native Spanish speaker.
Terri Rupar is The 19th's political editor. She previously worked at The Washington Post, where she held editing and digital jobs, most recently covering politics. She joined the Post after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.