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California governor selects former Harris aide for Feinstein’s Senate seat

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California governor Gavin Newsom has selected Laphonza Butler, a former adviser to vice-president Kamala Harris and former labour leader, to fill the Senate seat of the late Dianne Feinstein.

Feinstein, who served in the Senate for three decades, died last week aged 90, leaving a vacancy in the upper chamber of Congress. Her death shifted the balance of power in the Senate, which Democrats control by a razor-thin margin.

When Butler, a Democrat, is sworn in, her party will in effect again control the upper chamber by a 51-49 margin, with three independents voting with the Democrats.

Chuck Schumer, the Senate’s top Democrat, said Butler was joining the Senate at a “key time”, adding that her “breadth of work, acumen, and public service will meet this moment and be a great help to Senate Democrats”.

Butler is currently the president of Emily’s List, a leading political group in Washington that works to elect female candidates who support abortion rights. She lives in Maryland, just outside DC.

Butler said in a statement that she was “honoured” to accept Newsom’s nomination to represent a “state I have long called home”.

She was previously director of public policy and campaigns in North America for Airbnb and a Democratic strategist at SCRB Strategies, a political consulting firm. Butler was also a senior adviser to Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign.

Before those roles, Butler was president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, the biggest labour union in California, representing homecare workers.

“As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault,” said Newsom in a statement late on Sunday.

“Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people.”

California’s Democratic governor had previously said that if Feinstein, whose health visibly deteriorated in the final years of her life, was unable to complete her term, he would nominate a black woman to her seat.

Alex Padilla, the junior senator from California, and a fellow Democrat, praised Newsom’s appointment, saying the governor’s “swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority”.

Feinstein had this year confirmed she would not seek re-election in 2024, triggering a competitive primary contest among Democrats for the party’s nomination for the seat. Several high-profile Democrats have launched campaigns, including House Democrats Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee.

It remains unclear whether Butler will enter the race or simply serve out the remainder of Feinstein’s term.

“I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington,” said Newsom, noting that Butler would be the first black lesbian to serve in the US Senate.

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