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Kamala Harris to swear in Laphonza Butler as California’s next U.S. senator

Vice President Kamala Harris is expected to swear in Laphonza Butler as California’s next senator on Tuesday at noon Pacific time in the U.S. Capitol.

Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Butler on Sunday to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, fulfilling his promise to name a Black woman to the Senate. The appointment will ensure that Democrats keep their one-seat majority in the upper chamber.

Butler has never served as a public official but has worked behind the scenes for Democrats and their causes for decades. She worked for Service Employees International Union Local 2015 for more than a decade and in 2018 was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown as a UC regent for a 12-year term. She left the role in 2021, the same year she became president of Emily’s List, a political action committee that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.

Butler was also an advisor to Harris’ 2020 presidential bid and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the White House. She also recently served as Airbnb’s public policy and campaigns director.

No Black woman has served in the chamber since Harris left to become vice president. Newsom appointed then-California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to fill Harris’ seat and vowed his next Senate appointment would be a Black woman.

Butler will be the nation’s 12th Black senator and the third Black woman senator. She is also the first out gay person of color to serve in the Senate, and the first out LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber.

Some Californians wanted Newsom to pick a different Black woman for the role.

After Feinstein’s death, advocates and lawmakers pressed Newsom to name Rep. Barbara Lee as the state’s next senator.

The Oakland representative is the only prominent Black woman running to replace Feinstein. September polling indicates she is trailing two white fellow Democrats who are also vying for the seat: Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine.

Newsom last month sidestepped pressure to name Lee, saying the role would be temporary. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom said in September. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”

Shortly before the Sunday announcement, however, Newsom clarified his stipulation, saying that the new senator could be a candidate, fueling speculation that Butler might throw her hat into the ring.

Butler told The Times on Monday that she is undecided on joining the hotly contested Senate race.

“I have no idea. I genuinely don’t know,” Butler said in her first interview since her appointment. “I want to be focused on honoring the legacy of Sen. Feinstein. I want to devote my time and energy to serving the people of California. And I want to carry her baton with the honor that it deserves and so I genuinely have no idea.”

In a tweet, Lee said that she wished Butler well and that she looks “forward to working closely with her to deliver for the Golden State.”

“I am singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate,” she wrote. “CA deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”

Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.

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