California governor fills vacant Senate seat held by Feinstein

FILE - EMILY's List President Laphonza Butler, right, speaks while North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, and others listen at a news conference outside state Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh, N.C., Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has named Butler to fill the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by Sen. Dianne Feinstein's death. (AP Photo/Gary D. Robertson, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- California Gov. Gavin Newsom has selected Laphonza Butler, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Kamala Harris' 2020 presidential campaign, to fill the U.S. Senate seat made vacant by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In choosing Butler on Sunday, Newsom fulfilled his pledge to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein's seat became open. However, he had been facing pressure from some Black politicians and advocacy groups to select Barbara Lee, a prominent Black congresswoman who is already running for the seat.

Butler will be the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate and the first openly LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber.

Newsom said in a statement that the priorities Feinstein fought for in Congress -- reproductive freedom, equal protection and safety from gun violence -- were under assault in the nation. "Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein (and) continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.," he said.

Butler leads Emily's List, a political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. She also is a former labor leader with SEIU 2015, a powerful force in California politics.

Her appointment sets up a potentially tricky political calculus in the crowded 2024 contest to succeed Feinstein, which has been under way since the beginning of the year.

Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. The deadline for candidates to submit paperwork to seek the office is Dec. 8. Should Butler enter the contest, she could set up a competition for the relatively small but influential group of Black voters in California and possibly undercut Lee's chances.

Emily's List is known as a fundraising powerhouse, and raising huge sums of campaign cash is a must in any statewide California race. Newsom's statement said she will step down from the organization.

The decision carried the threat of political fallout for Newsom, who is seen as a potential future national candidate. The candidate favored by Black voters has won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination every cycle since 1992. The Congressional Black Caucus was among the groups and Black politicians that had urged Newsom to appoint Lee, calling her the best-qualified choice for the post.

Lee congratulated Butler in a statement but said she remains "singularly focused on winning" her Senate campaign.

California "deserves an experienced senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That's exactly what I'm running to do," she said.

The long-serving Feinstein died Thursday at age 90 after a series of illnesses.

Feinstein said in February she would not seek re-election in 2024. Lee is one of several prominent Democrats competing for the seat, including Democratic U.S. Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. Newsom said he did not want to appoint any of the candidates because it would give them an unfair advantage in the race.