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Column: Senate appointment extricates Newsom from a major screw-up

There’s an old political axiom that cautions: Never make a decision until you have to. Gov. Gavin Newsom ignored that doctrine when he did a double flip-flop over a Senate replacement for Dianne Feinstein.

The opposite of premature decision-making, of course, is procrastination. Lots of politicians are guilty of that too when the politics get tricky. That’s a frustrating Newsom flaw. He tends to make grandiose announcements about bold new agendas, then interminably delay announcing details.

It’s called governing by news release. You can make a splash, but sometimes belly-flop.

The bigger risk, however, is in making an early decision that you later regret — maybe because it doesn’t hold up when circumstances shift, or upon reflection you simply change your mind.

Then usually the best remedy is to back off — do a flip-flop — even if it does make you look foolish. That’s what Newsom did with the Feinstein seat.

First, in 2021, the governor tried to placate Black leaders and voters who were miffed because he didn’t replace Vice President Kamala Harris in the Senate with another Black woman. Harris had been the Senate’s only one. Newsom chose a longtime political ally, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, to become the state’s first Latino senator. To smooth things over, the governor pledged to name a Black woman to fill the next Senate vacancy.

Fast-forward two years and there’s a competitive contest to replace the ailing and retiring Feinstein. One of the three major candidates is a liberal Black woman, Rep. Barbara Lee of Oakland. She’s trailing badly in the polls. A Newsom appointment presumably would provide a hefty boost to Lee’s campaign. But the governor had second thoughts. He announced that if there is a vacancy, he’ll make only an “interim appointment” of someone who won’t run for a full term.

“I don’t want to tip the balance” of the contest already underway, he said.

So now Black women — especially Lee — are angry all over again. He’d only select one of them to be a second-class senator, a seat warmer until a real replacement could be elected next year.

And remember: Feinstein was still alive. There was no vacancy — and no need for the governor to have ever said anything about replacing her. He could have kept his mouth shut rather than putting his foot in it.

In the end, after Feinstein died Friday, Newsom wound up exercising damage control and landing pretty much where he should have in the first place by completing a double flip-flop. On Sunday, he appointed a Black woman highly respected in Democratic circles and left it entirely up to her whether to run for a full term next year.

The appointee, Laphonza Butler, told The Times on Monday that she wasn’t close to deciding whether to enter the race. “I genuinely have no idea,” she said.

It seems rather moot anyway. It’s very late in the game for a basically unknown candidate to leap into the contest. There are only five months left before the March primary. That’s not much time to organize a campaign, trudge around the huge state and raise tens of millions of dollars to compete against the three major contenders who have been running for months: Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Lee.

It’s highly likely that Newsom will achieve what he wanted anyway: a caretaker senator who won’t interfere in the race among the top three Democratic candidates.

For what it’s worth — probably little — two of the last three California senators appointed by a governor wound up losing when they ran for the seat: Republican John Seymour lost to Democrat Feinstein in 1992 and Democrat Pierre Salinger — John F. Kennedy’s former presidential press secretary — to Republican actor George Murphy in 1964.

Newsom’s surprise selection of Butler, 44, seems to be a winner for him. She’s virtually immune from criticism from within the party.

Her resume: The president of Emily’s List, a national political organization that helps elect Democratic women; a former labor organizer for Service Employees International Union; former president of SEIU California, a powerful lobby in Sacramento; a top strategist for Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign; and an ex-partner in the consulting firm that manages Newsom’s campaigns.

She’s also a lesbian, the first LGBTQ+ senator from California. Newsom seems to obsess on being credited with “firsts.”

Butler has never held an elective office. But she has been enmeshed in high-end politics for many years. She’s not exactly a neophyte.

Anyway, several Black female elected officials said they weren’t interested in resigning from their office to take a job that probably would last only 15 months — equivalent to 15 minutes in politics.

Republicans have been trying to raise a ruckus over Butler living in Maryland while she’s president of Emily’s List. It’s a weak complaint. Washington, D.C., and surrounding suburbs in northern Virginia and Maryland are full of Californians who work in the nation’s capital but consider themselves rooted to the Golden State. Butler still has a house in California.

Kudos have been rolling in for Butler, including from Lee.

Newsom stepped in it deep more than two years ago. But he extricated himself as best he could on Sunday. And he probably learned a lesson about not rushing in where he doesn’t need to.

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