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Calif. Gov. Newsom names Laphonza Butler to finish Sen. Feinstein's term


Laphonza Butler will make history today when Vice President Kamala Harris swears her in as California's newest U.S. senator.


Yeah, Butler will become the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the Senate. She will serve out the remainder of a Senate term left vacant by the death of Dianne Feinstein, who represented California for three decades.

MARTÍNEZ: For more on this, we turn to Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco. Scott, so why did California Governor Gavin Newsom choose Laphonza Butler for that vacancy?

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Well, I think she has a lot of qualities that Newsom likes, including the fact that her appointment is historic. As we heard in the introduction there, she'll be the first lesbian of color to serve in the Senate. Newsom likes that. She's also relatively young, 44. And he's talked about her resume, you know, her personal experience growing up in a middle-class family in Mississippi. And she's also had a lot of work in her past on big issues that Democrats care about, like abortion.

You know, she's head of EMILY's List, where she's helped women who support abortion rights get elected. That's a big issue, of course, for Democrats. And, you know, as an open lesbian, she can very much relate to the attacks that the LGBTQ community are undergoing right now and challenges to working people, all those things. And, you know, she's got really solid labor credentials, which is important to the Democrats. Basically, Newsom said that her experience just meets the moment. And this is how he summarized it yesterday.


GAVIN NEWSOM: I just think Laphonza Butler is uniquely positioned, simply the best person that I could find for this moment and this job.

SHAFER: And, A, you know, a lot of people are saying, well, what are her priorities going to be? But, you know, she's coming into an institution where seniority is everything and she's dead last in seniority. I don't think we'll hear any big policy pronouncements from her. But the big question really is, will she run for six years, or is she just going to fill out the rest of Dianne Feinstein's term? We don't know the answer to that yet.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, there are a number of California Democrats already vying for this Senate seat after Feinstein announced that she would not run for reelection. So how does Butler's appointment affect that race?

SHAFER: Well, it's got real potential to shake things up. It really upsets the apple cart in a lot of ways. You know, Newsom said a couple of weeks ago that he only wanted to appoint someone as an interim senator, not somebody who would run against the current field of Democrats, which includes, as you know, Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, three pretty well-known Democratic members of Congress from out here.

He got a lot of blowback for that, especially from Black women, who thought it was kind of insulting, you know? They wondered, why didn't he name, you know, Congresswoman Lee, who's already running for the Senate seat? She's the only Black woman in the field. But Newsom says, you know, it's up to Butler now whether or not she wants to run. She hasn't said one way or the other. But I do think that the biggest impact is going to be on Barbara Lee. It's hard to see how this is going to help her.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, on Barbara Lee - there was a lot of pressure, as you mentioned, for Barbara Lee to get that Senate seat. Why do you think Gavin Newsom didn't choose her?

SHAFER: In a word, politics. You know, we know that former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is a huge supporter of Adam Schiff. She's endorsed him for the Senate seat. And, you know, right now, Barbara Lee in the polls is running third behind Schiff and Porter. She's had a hard time raising money. If he had appointed her, it might have helped her, improved her chances a bit - not something that Nancy Pelosi would have liked. You know, but she would have been running as an incumbent senator. That has its advantages. But, you know, the other thing is that Congresswoman Lee is 77 years old. And, you know, that might have worked against her, especially given all the controversy we've seen over the last month with Senator Feinstein's physical and mental decline.

MARTÍNEZ: That is Scott Shafer from member station KQED. Scott, thank you.

SHAFER: You're welcome.

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Scott Shafer