Laphonza Butler to fill Feinstein’s Senate seat. Will she seek full term?

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Robin Estrin

EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler speaks during a political event with reproductive rights groups at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2023. Photo by REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein.

Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday appointed Laphonza Butler to fill Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat after Feinstein died last week. Vice President Kamala Harris is scheduled to swear in Butler on Wednesday. The appointment fulfills a promise Newsom made two years ago to name a Black woman to the next vacant Senate seat. Democratic Representatives Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff have been vying for the seat since Feinstein announced she would retire.

While Butler isn’t a household name, the Senate-designate has been around California politics for a long time, says CalMatters Reporter Alexei Koseff. She has a history with SEIU Local 2015, which represents California’s long-term care workers. Then she was a partner in the consulting firm that represents Gavin Newsom, Kamala Harris, and other high-ranking California politicians. After that, she worked on Airbnb’s public policy.

One question swirling after news of her appointment is whether she’s eligible to serve as a California senator, particularly since she moved to Washington D.C. two years ago when taking on a role with EMILY’s List, a national group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights. 

Koseff says Butler owns a home in California and will need to re-register to vote in the state prior to her swearing-in ceremony. 

“Obviously, this did open up some criticism. A lot of Republicans, in particular, mocked the governor for the fact that he couldn't even find someone to appoint from California,” Koseff explains. 

He points out that many women politicians reportedly said they weren’t interested in the job and tried to push it on to Congresswoman Barbara Lee. That includes Karen Bass, Maxine Waters, and London Breed. “There was this big public pressure campaign. And obviously, it did not work out in the end.”

Some of the appointment’s loudest critics were Barbara Lee’s supporters, Koseff notes. And so, if Butler ends up running for the full Senate term, would she take support away from Barbara Lee as a progressive Black woman? 

“It’s so hard to say because we don't even know yet if she is going to run. So these are all hypotheticals that we're trying to figure out at the moment. … But I do think that there's a lot of questions about what her entering the race would mean. From a surface level, she certainly has a profile most similar to Barbara Lee’s. But politically, we don't really know yet how she's going to govern.”

He continues, “Barbara Lee has really asserted herself out there as the progressive choice, and that has garnered her a lot of fans. Not enough, obviously, to be leading in the polls. But they may be very devoted to her. And in fact, Butler might end up being a little bit more of a mainstream Democrat and draw support away from someone like Adam Schiff.” 



  • Alexei Koseff - CalMatters reporter covering Gov. Gavin Newsom, the legislature and California government