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Feinstein's successor Laphonza Butler takes office as California's new senator

Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif. is sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on October 3, 2023.
Anna Rose Layden
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Sen. Laphonza Butler, D-Calif. is sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris at the U.S. Capitol on October 3, 2023.

Updated October 3, 2023 at 3:10 PM ET

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 the late 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 takes office amid mounting speculation over whether she will run for a full term next year.

"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," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. "I know that our old colleague is looking down at this moment with pride, now that her seat is in good hands."

Before taking office, Butler led EMILYs List, a national organization dedicated to electing more women to political office who support abortion rights. Her background includes deep experience as a leader of one of California's most powerful and largest unions and as a former campaign adviser to Harris. Her pursuit of a full Senate term could scramble an already crowded field vying for the Senate seat.

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.

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"I wouldn't have appointed someone I didn't respect and admire, someone I couldn't back up and vouch for," Newsom added.

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

"Politics can wait," he added.

A crowded primary race faces a new disruption

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

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 were nonetheless pleased with the governor's selection of Butler, who would also make history as the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the Senate.

"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.

Lee told KQED she spoke with Butler 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 led the push to raise California's minimum wage to $15 an hour as a leader of SEIU 2015, a union representing long-term care workers.

"She understood the plight of low-wage workers," said Carmen Roberts, the union's current executive vice president. "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.

Bicoastal roots raises residency questions

Criticism of Butler focused in part on her residency in Maryland. She moved to the East Coast to lead EMILYs List but still owns a house in California.

California Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher dubbed Butler "Maryland's 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 Assemblyman Tom Lackey, a Republican from Palmdale, Calif.

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

"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."

On Monday, Newsom said Butler had re-registered to vote in California ahead of her swearing in.

Copyright 2023 KQED

Guy Marzorati