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Labor leader and political strategist Laphonza Butler will take over for Feinstein

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Less than 72 hours after Dianne Feinstein died, California Governor Gavin Newsom named longtime labor leader and political strategist Laphonza Butler to fill out the remainder of Feinstein's U.S. Senate term. Up until this point, Butler has worked as the president of EMILY's List, which raises money to help elect women who support abortion rights. For more on this appointment, we turn now to Scott Shafer from member station KQED in San Francisco. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us more about Laphonza Butler. Like, what was her path that ultimately led to this really coveted appointment?

SHAFER: Yeah. Well, she was born in Magnolia, Miss., 44 years ago. She attended Jackson State University, which is a historically Black university. And her dad was sick for a long time when she was a kid. He died when she was 16, and her mom was the primary caregiver for him, which is kind of interesting because she ultimately got involved in SEIU, which is the union that represents caregivers here in California. She came out West in 2009. But before that, she worked for SEIU on the East Coast, organizing nurses and janitors. Here in California, she served as the leader of SEIU, which, by the way, is the largest union in our state. And she helped lead the fight to win a minimum wage of $15 an hour.

After that, she joined a Democratic political consulting firm and helped manage Kamala Harris' presidential campaign in 2020. And then, as head of EMILY's List, as you said, she's been helping elect women who support abortion rights. One issue that has come up, by the way, Ailsa, is her residence. Butler owns a home in California, but she lives right now with her family in Maryland for the job at EMILY's List. The governor's office says that she'll reregister to vote here in California before she's sworn in tomorrow in Washington by Vice President Harris.

CHANG: OK. And why do you think Newsom chose her specifically?

SHAFER: Well, you know, Newsom likes to make historic appointments, and Butler certainly fits that mold. She'll be the first LGBTQ senator of color ever, only the third Black woman to be a U.S. senator. And, by the way, her name wasn't on any of the lists of likely appointees. So it was a little outside the box and unexpected in that sense. And again, that's something Gavin Newsom likes. And the reaction so far has been mostly positive, a little mixed. Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia, said Butler is the right choice at the right time. Organized labor is also happy, as you might imagine. But there's also some disappointment, even anger in some quarters at the way Newsom has handled this.

You know, when the governor chose Alex Padilla to fill the Senate seat that was left vacant after Kamala Harris became vice president about three years ago, he promised to name a Black woman if there was another opening. But he backed away from that recently. He told "Meet The Press" that he would only appoint someone to fill out the rest of Feinstein's term as an interim appointment, not someone who would run for the full six-year term. And he said that was because he didn't want to interfere with the voters' choice in the election next year. And that kind of infuriated Black women and some others who said putting someone in there just to keep the seat warm until 2024 was insulting. Now he's named Laphonza Butler, and Newsom's staff says she's free to run.

CHANG: Well, so far, I know that three prominent Democratic members of Congress from California are running for the seat that's left open by Feinstein. We got Adam Schiff, Katie Porter, Barbara Lee all running. What do you think this appointment of Butler does to that race?

SHAFER: Well, it could scramble the Senate race in a big way, Ailsa. Exactly how and exactly where the chips fall - it's unclear right now. But, you know, many progressives wanted Newsom to name Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee. She's the only Black woman running for the open seat, but she's also 78 years old. That might have worked against her. Lee did issue a statement congratulating Butler, but implied that she's still focused on running. And, you know, she says it's critical to have a Black woman in the Senate since there aren't any there right now. You know, but Lee has had a hard time raising money. She's also consistently running third in the polls behind Schiff and Porter. And in Laphonza Butler, Newsom has chosen a dynamic 44-year-old with very strong ties to the Democratic establishment in California while making history at the same time.

CHANG: That is KQED's Scott Shafer. Thank you so much, Scott.

SHAFER: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Shafer