Laphonza Butler Sworn In to Fill Feinstein's Seat as Her Selection Draws Speculation Over 2024 Plans

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a smiling Black woman wearing a light blue blazer smiles with her right rand raised as another smiling Black woman wearing a maroon blouse looks on
Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) raises her right hand as her wife Neneki Lee looks on during her ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol on Oct. 3, 2023.  (Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Updated 1:25 p.m. Tuesday

Laphonza Butler, a former labor leader and Democratic strategist, was sworn in as California’s new U.S. Senator on Tuesday, days after she was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to serve the remainder of a term left open by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In the U.S. Capitol, Butler took her oath from Vice President Kamala Harris, whose presidential campaign she helped lead in 2019. Butler, who is the first Black, openly lesbian member of the U.S. Senate, takes office amid mounting speculation over whether she will run for a full term next year.

Flanked by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and California Senator Alex Padilla, Butler recited her oath to applause in the Senate chamber.

“I can’t help but think of how proud Senator Feinstein would be, seeing someone as brilliant, as accomplished, as history-making as Laphonza Butler take her place,” Schumer said. “I know that our old colleague is looking down at this moment with pride, now that her seat is in good hands.”

Asked Monday if it would be good for the state if Butler decided to run, Newsom said “she’ll make that decision,” and reiterated that he placed “no constraints, no expectations” on Butler’s future plans.

“I wouldn’t have appointed someone I didn’t respect and admire, someone I couldn’t back up and vouch for,” Newsom said.

In response to a question about potential candidacy, Matt Wing, a spokesperson for Butler, said in an email that she was focused on honoring the legacy of Feinstein and preparing to take office.

“Politics can wait,” he added.

But the window to jump into the race is narrowing. Candidates have to file for the seat by Dec. 8 and voting begins in early February. Butler would have to quickly set up a campaign to compete with a field that includes Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, and Barbara Lee.

Butler’s candidacy could especially complicate the path forward for Lee, who has trailed Schiff and Porter in early polling and fundraising. Many Lee supporters who pushed Newsom to fulfill his promise of appointing a Black woman by tapping the East Bay progressive icon were nonetheless pleased with the governor’s selection of Butler.

“Gavin did take us seriously. … and now we’re in this position of having this really, really, really dope leader,” said Molly Watson, deputy director for the California Donor Table, a network of progressive donors which has endorsed Lee.

The entrance of another Black progressive candidate into the race, Watson said, could force some difficult strategic decisions by the donors she works with.

“Hopefully we’re able to figure something out here in California and not end up with Adam [Schiff] or Katie [Porter],” Watson said. “I’m not exactly sure what the dynamic is going to look like — this is absolutely going to have an effect on it.”

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Lee told KQED she spoke with Butler on Monday and wished her well.

“But what I’m doing is being singularly focused like I have been on winning my campaign for the Senate,” Lee said.

Labor leaders cheered the appointment of Butler, who helmed SEIU 2015, a union of long-term caregivers, and later SEIU California, the state’s largest umbrella union.

“She understood the plight of low-wage workers,” said Carmen Roberts, executive vice president of SEIU 2015. “She listened and she had a voice and used that voice to carry those values — the things that were valuable to the care workers — to the governor.”

SEIU has yet to endorse a candidate for Senate, and Roberts did not want to speculate about Butler’s political future.

“But I would be excited if she was one of the candidates,” she added.

Other labor leaders said Butler’s entrance could lead to a reshuffling of endorsements.

State Senator Maria Elena Durazo, the former executive vice president of UNITE-HERE International, has already backed Schiff but didn’t rule out a future dual endorsement.

“I wouldn’t discount doing it either,” Durazo said. “It’s possible.”

Butler’s crowning achievement at SEIU was her role in high-stakes negotiations to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2016.

Former State Sen. Mark Leno, who wrote the minimum wage bill, said Butler’s drive to succeed played a key role — as well as labor’s gamble. Under Butler’s direction, the campaign used the threat of a minimum wage ballot measure to catapult a similar bill to approval in the Legislature.

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“She kept her eye on the prize,” Leno said. “There were all the other voices and all of this noise going on with regard to some of the internal tensions at SEIU. She just kept focused that we needed to get this done because it would impact so many millions of California workers.”

Leno, who is an openly gay politician, said Butler will “dazzle” the electorate.

“To have a Black queer woman in the U.S. Senate, just doing her job, it’s a very strong statement that our country is better than the hateful actions, unfortunately, of what I believe to be a very loud-mouth minority in this country,” Leno said. “And every day in the U.S. Senate, Laphonza Butler will be a reminder that we are better and bigger than that.”

Criticism of Butler focused in part on her residency in Maryland. She moved to the East Coast in 2021 to lead EMILYs List but still owns a house in California. Butler is required to be a state resident, and Newsom said she would re-register to vote in California before taking office.

Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher dubbed Butler “Maryland 3rd US Senator,” in a statement, adding “Out of 40 million California residents, Gavin Newsom seriously couldn’t find one to serve in the Senate?”

Other Republicans acknowledged that Butler’s residency wasn’t the only reason for their displeasure at Newsom’s pick.

“Of course it gives me concern, but I think any appointment that he would have made, because I share a different perspective than he does politically, I would have had concern,” said Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale).

From a legal perspective, to represent the state, Butler must establish that California is her residence — and being registered to vote here is a key part of that, said Loyola Law School Professor Jessica Levinson.

“When we look at the Constitution and we look at the qualifications, the Constitution talks about being an inhabitant when you are elected. And I think that actually embraces more than a mere election. It embraces the entire official decision-making process, including the decision to appoint,” she said. “So if Gov. Newsom wants to use a belt-and-suspenders approach, what he should really do is make sure that the official appointment occurs after Ms. Butler changes her voter registration.”

KQED’s Tyche Hendricks contributed to this story.

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