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Newsom’s pick adds complexity to California’s Senate race

California Gov. Gavin Newsom fulfilled a vow to appoint a Black woman to Dianne Feinstein’s Senate seat. He chose a popular figure, but controversy remains. Here’s why.


UPDATE (Oct. 3, 2023, 3:24 p.m. ET): Laphonza Butler was sworn in Tuesday as California’s new U.S. senator, replacing the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom bucked a recommendation from the Congressional Black Caucus in appointing progressive organizer Laphonza Butler to the Senate seat formerly held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last week. 

And the decision adds some complexity — and potentially some controversy — to the hotly contested primary race next year for the seat, which was already set to open up with Feinstein’s planned retirement.

Butler is the president of Emily’s List, an organization that focuses on electing Democratic women to office who support abortion rights. She’ll become just the third Black woman to serve in the Senate, according to NBC News, and as a lesbian is the first Black senator who is openly LBGTQ.

“I’m honored to accept Gov. @GavinNewsom’s nomination to be U.S. Senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation,” she wrote in a post on X

“No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” Butler added, “but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California. I am ready to serve.”

Newsom had promised to appoint a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat if she stepped down before the end of her term, a nod toward Vice President Kamala Harris’ departure from a California seat in the Senate. As recently as Sunday, the Congressional Black Caucus urged the governor to pick Rep. Barbara Lee, a longtime progressive stalwart and a current candidate in California’s Senate primary race, to fill the role.

“She is 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,” the caucus wrote in a letter to Newsom

A day later, the caucus welcomed Butler as its newest member, saying in a statement:

Her background and years of experience will bring a much-needed perspective to the Senate, which currently does not have any Black women. For many years, Laphonza Butler has been a champion for women and girls, students, and union workers, and we believe she will bring that same fight to the U.S. Senate on behalf of Californians and our entire nation. As the first lesbian Black woman in the U.S. Senate, Laphonza will bring an important perspective to the upper house at a time when the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” last month, Newsom said appointing Lee wouldn’t be fair because she’s a candidate in California’s Senate race, and he vowed to appoint an interim candidate — a “caretaker,” as then-host Chuck Todd called it — to the role. Lee criticized Newsom’s comments as an indicator of tokenism.

To be honest, it seemed to me like an apt description of what Newsom was going for. It seemed like he was looking to appoint a Black woman who, at least at first glance, lacked the interest or political infrastructure to stay in the Senate beyond 2024.

But Politico reported Sunday that the governor didn’t put any limitations or preconditions on Butler running for the seat in 2024.

Coincidentally, Lee is precisely the type of Democratic stalwart that Butler’s organization, Emily’s List, tries to recruit for political races. In 2020, my MSNBC colleague James Downie (in his previous life as an editor and columnist for The Washington Post) wrote a piece explaining why Lee would have been a solid pick as Joe Biden’s running mate. 

In a post on X, Lee wished Butler well, but said she’s “singularly focused” on winning her Senate campaign.

California “deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities,” she added. “That’s exactly what I’m running to do.” 

The question of whether Newsom’s pick amounts to tokenism or something more substantial, in my view, hinges on whether Butler runs in 2024 and has the political backing to do so — she just told the Los Angeles Times that she has no idea whether she’ll run. If she does, I think Newsom will be able to say he earnestly sought to give Black women substantive representation in the Senate.

If she doesn’t, I don’t think Newsom beats the appearance of tokenism. And in today’s Democratic Party, a perception that he has spurned a Black woman like Lee in such a way could prove fatal for any loftier political hopes he may have.