Acting expeditiously, Governor Newsom this week appointed Laphonza Butler, a veteran labor organizer and political strategist, to replace the late Dianne Feinstein in the United States Senate.
The measure fulfilled a promise Newsom made to elect a Black woman, filling a notable void.
With the departure of Vice President Kamala Harris, there were no black women among the 100 members of the august chamber. In fact, before Butler, there were only two black female senators in the country’s history.
Butler, 44, was sworn in Tuesday by Harris, a friend and former political client. He is the first openly LGBTQ+ person of color to serve in the Senate.
Times columnists Erika D. Smith, Anita Chabria and Mark Z. Barabak discussed the historic selection, speculation about Butler’s future and the problems Newson created for himself by taking Feinstein’s place.
Barabac: So, it’s a big deal for California and Newsom. How come there isn’t a more festive atmosphere surrounding our governor?
chabria: I’m not sure there isn’t, at least behind the scenes. Butler’s appointment was an elegant solution to a major political problem. He didn’t want to anger Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) or Katie Porter (D-Irvine), or his powerful allies and donors, by giving the seat to Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland).
It was always about Newsom’s political future, not the will of the people, as he claimed.
But, as Erika pointed out, there was a lot of anger that the governor would try to convince a black politician to undermine Lee by serving for a few months as a senator and then step aside with nothing to show for it.
So Newsom was forced, late in the game, to abandon that placeholder idea, but not before a backlash solidified, leaving him few options.
Butler is something of a genius in that sense. She is well liked in Democratic circles and is powerful, nationally, not just in California. The strongest complaint against her so far is that she owns a house in Maryland. I think the governor is probably celebrating.
What do you think, Erika?
Blacksmith: Butler is definitely an inspired choice. She checks a lot of boxes, and not just demographically. Her career includes stints in labor, political, corporate and academic circles. She has had a great impact on all of them and has ultimately improved the lives of working class people in California.
And yes, I love that she’s a queer black woman in her 40s, because I’m a queer black woman in her 40s too, and it’s nice to finally have some representation in the Senate.
So I’m happy. But that doesn’t mean everyone is happy.
That’s because by choosing Butler, Newsom more or less doomed the campaign of Lee, the 77-year-old Black woman many expected would end up in the Senate.
Lee is trailing far in the polls behind Schiff and Porter, and running as a sitting senator could have given her a much-needed boost.
It’s also unclear whether Butler will simply finish out Feinstein’s term or run in 2024, meaning these next few months could be the last time we see a Black woman in the California Senate. The decline of the state’s black population has generated all kinds of pessimism.
So the mood you feel is a mix of disappointment, excitement and dismay. People like Butler, but they also like Lee, and they’re emotionally torn.
Mark, do you think Lee’s supporters basically exaggerated their cards?
I think it started with an effort to push aside the ailing Feinstein and then pressure Newsom to appoint Lee, who is well to the political left of Feinstein.
Liberals (or progressives, if you prefer) never really liked Feinstein and I think they believed, to use Anita’s words, naming Lee as her replacement would have been an elegant solution.
For one, Newsom has already named one of our senators to replace Harris when she becomes vice president. (Although, it should be noted, Alex Padilla ran and won handily last November.)
The governor also chose California’s attorney general and secretary of state.
If Lee wants to serve in the Senate, he should do exactly what he is doing, which is run for the seat and try to win the most votes.
But my problem with Newsom goes beyond his serial appointments.
I think he botched this entire process, starting with his reckless promise in March 2021 to name a Black woman to replace Feinstein.
Good intention, poorly executed.
Here’s why: Every time someone promises to appoint a black woman, or a Latino, or a pudgy white man with bad looks to some political position, a not insignificant number of people will take the position. only The reason that person was chosen was because they were a black woman, a Latino, or a white man with a bad hairstyle.
Newsom could have simply named Butler, or another Black woman, and praised his selection based on her merits.
But if he hadn’t made that promise, he wouldn’t have gotten the credit he wanted or calmed the anger of black voters unhappy with Padilla’s election, whose support he needed as he faced a threat of impeachment.
And then there’s his somersault over whether his appointee would be a caregiver or not. Not so good look.
Anita, Should Newsom have chosen a replacement or someone who wanted an extended stay in the Senate?
chabria: I’ll admit I made my own change on this. I was strongly in favor of the caregiver idea for exactly the reasons you describe, Mark. Let the people choose.
But Butler’s appointment changed my mind. She is powerful and connected, but she is not a politician.
He has a track record of real-world accomplishments that I can’t help but love. Through her work at SEIU, she firmly understands that America is an aging country and that we must think ahead about Medicare, Social Security, and health care to plan for the next silver tsunami, as she has called it. .
I think she will be a great senator who will offer much more than her personal life. I want to see her run (and an easy victory is not guaranteed here) because she is more than your typical politician: I know what she represents and I like that.
Blacksmith: I would have to agree, Anita.
I was never a fan of the idea of interim government and, according to a recent UC Berkeley poll, neither were voters.
In fact, I find it insulting. As you pointed out, Mark, Newsom has appointed numerous people to public office without conditions. So the governor and his advisors should have known it wasn’t going to work and he decided to add some when it came to appointing a black woman to the Senate.
Newsom had no choice but to change his mind. And I’m delighted that he did it because he gives Butler the opportunity to run, if he wants to.
Personally, I hope so. It will be a tough job, especially considering how late he will be entering the race against some formidable opponents. Butler knows the right people and has access to raising large amounts of money to do it.
What’s wrong with Lee? I don’t know.
Newsom may have botched this, giving in to his worst political instincts by talking about making a decision, rather than simply making the decision. But at least in the end it was a good decision.
Barrabác: It seems like they outvoted me on the caregiver issue, but it’s irrelevant now. California has a new U.S. senator, and she has the power of the office behind her.
Although, as you suggest, Erika, getting chosen will be a difficult task. Butler not only has to acclimate to the Senate but, if he runs, launch a campaign in short order, all while he repeatedly travels 2,500 miles round trip between Washington and California.
I wouldn’t underestimate how difficult it is to make yourself known in a place with almost 40 million inhabitants, spread over a huge geographical area.
Plus, Butler doesn’t have much time to decide whether to run.
The primary is in March, but to be included in the information guide sent to registered voters, Butler would have to file a candidate declaration by Nov. 15.
And if you were hoping to get the endorsement of the California Democratic Party, its website lists Oct. 13 as the deadline to submit the necessary paperwork.
So the decision will have to come fairly soon, and who knows what Butler will decide.
But here’s one thing I bet: Newsom is glad this whole episode is behind him. He can now devote his full attention to the cage match scheduled for next month with his longtime whip, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.