October 4, 2023 - 11:45am

On Sunday evening California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his appointment of EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler as California’s new United States Senator. She is expected to be sworn in to the Senate on Wednesday by Vice President Kamala Harris.

This appointment transpired within a remarkably brief period, less than 72 hours following the passing of the 90-year-old Dianne Feinstein, the oldest sitting US Senator who served more than five decades in public office. Feinstein’s failing health has been a debated issue for several years, prompting calls for her resignation. Governor Newsom, known for his efforts to “check boxes” to align with progressive party principles, had previously pledged to appoint an African American woman to the Senate in the event of Feinstein’s departure.

Newsom’s choice may carry significant political implications, particularly if he wishes to challenge Joe Biden in 2024. Recently, the Democratic Party altered its primary schedule to open with South Carolina ahead of Ohio as a means to prioritise the participation of African Americans and other ethnic minority groups. Newsom’s appointment could enhance his appeal to this cohort, making it a politically savvy move.

That Butler is actually a resident of Maryland rather than the state of California appears not to have deterred Newsom. The Governor’s office has clarified that she owns property in California and will change her voter registration accordingly, but Newsom’s critics have questioned why he was not able to find a qualified black woman who already resided there. 

More concerning, however, is Butler’s lack of prior political experience, raising questions about her competence and ability to serve effectively. Without ever holding an elected office, many have questioned why Newsom would promote her to one of the highest and most powerful offices in the nation.

But what Butler may lack legislatively she makes up for in the boxes she checks (black, woman, lesbian) and as a national fundraising powerhouse with strong public sector union ties. 

Butler became the first black woman to lead EMILY’s List, a federal Political Action Committee that bundles and gives contributions to pro-choice, female Democratic candidates for office. The organisation name is an acronym for “Early Money Is Like Yeast”, since its endorsement and fundraising capacity can make or break a campaign. EMILY’s List has reportedly raised $850 million since its founding, and has helped Democratic women win competitive elections across the country by getting female voters to turn out at the polls.

While there may be concerns about whether Butler is the right representative for the constituents of California, Newsom appears to have made this selection with an eye on advancing his own political ambitions. Nominating an out of state resident to represent California in the US Senate is a politically risky move, one that may increase cynicism and alienate voters, especially if Butler decides to run as an incumbent for the open Senate seat in 2024. Biden may think that he’s safe from any Democratic challengers, but Newsom’s recent machinations suggest that trouble may lie ahead.