DemDaily: Following Feinstein

October 2, 2023

California Governor Gavin Newsom on Sunday appointed EMILY's List President Laphonza Butler as interim US Senator for the seat held by the late Dianne Feinstein, who passed away last Thursday at age 90.

Feinstein, the trailblazing Grand Dame of the US Senate who was first elected to the upper chamber in 1992, announced in February that she would retire at the end of her term in 2025.

A crowded primary contest was already underway for her seat with three prominent Democratic congressional members competing in the March 5 jungle primary: Barbara Lee (CD 12), Katie Porter (CD 47) and Adam Schiff (CD 30).

With Feinstein's death, however, there will now be two elections that day: 1) a special election to determine the two general election opponents in November, the winner of which will serve out the final weeks of Feinstein's term through January, 2025, and 2) the regularly scheduled primary to determine who will be the two general election opponents in November, the winner of which will serve a regular six-year term.

California is one of 34 US Senate seats up for election in 2024, 23 of which are being defended by Democrats. A safely blue state that Joe Biden won by 30 points in 2020, California uses a blanket primary system. The top-two vote-getters from the primary, where candidates of all parties run at once, advance to the general election.

Newsom, who had pledged to appoint a black female if Feinstein stepped down early, has been caught in the crosshairs after announcing he would not appoint anyone already in the race to avoid giving them an unfair advantage.

That brought heavy criticism from the Congressional Black Caucus and supporters of 12-term Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who is Black, and has long-positioned herself for the seat. Although Newsom was expected to appoint a "caretaker," someone who would not be running for the office longterm, to the position, he did not place such limitations or preconditions on Butler.

Butler, who has homes in Maryland and California, is currently President of EMILY's List, a national advocacy and fundraising powerhouse that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women.

She previously worked as Director for Public Policy and Campaigns at Airbnb in 2020, and as a partner at San Francisco-based consulting firm SCRB Strategies from 2018-2019, where she served a senior strategist to Vice President Kamala Harris' 2020 presidential campaign. While at SCRB, she also advised Uber in its dealings with organized labor. The firm is working for Schiff in his 2024 race for the Senate.

She was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents in 2018 by Governor Jerry Brown and served until 2021, when she went to EMILY's List.

Although she has not held elected political office, Butler first became known to many Californians as a nationally-known labor leader, having served as International Vice President of the Service Employees International Union after more than a decade as president of California's largest labor union, SEIU Local 2015. The union represents more than 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout the state.

In 2013, she was also elected as president of SEIU's California State Council which represents more than 700,000 workers in 58 counties. For her work on the Living Wage, President Barack Obama recognized Butler as a “Champion for Change.”

Butler, who is expected to be sworn-in to the US Senate on Wednesday by Harris, will be only the third Black woman to serve in the upper chamber, and the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate.

“I am honored to accept Governor's Newsom’s nomination.. and humbled by [his] trust. Senator Dianne Feinstein’s leadership and legacy are immeasurable. I will do my best to honor her by devoting my time and energy to serving the people of California and the people of this great nation. 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.” - Laphonza Butler

Should Butler decide to run for a full term, she will face some formidable challenges. She will have been in office just five months before the March primary and would be running against three strong candidates who have been raising funds and lining up endorsements since the beginning of the year.

As of the June 30 second quarter finance filing, Schiff had nearly $30 million on hand in his campaign account, Porter ended the period with $10.4 million on hand, and Lee ended the quarter with $1.4 million.

Schiff, who entered the race prior to Feinstein's retirement announcement, but reportedly with her blessing, also has the endorsement of US House Speaker Emerita and California Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. Porter and Lee also have their share of endorsements from state and national lawmakers.

In an August 25 - September 5 survey by the Public Policy Institute of California of likely voters, Schiff led the field with 20% of participants, followed by Porter with 15% and Lee with 8%. Seven other minor candidates are in the race, including four Republicans.

In the historically liberal state, the GOP has not won a statewide election since 2006 and Democrats have held both US Senate seats for the last three decades.

The deadline for other candidates to submit paperwork to seek the office is December 8, 2023.

RelatedDemDailyThe Race to Replace Feinstein 2/15/23

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Sources: Politico, AP, CNN, NPR, Open Secrets, New York Times

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