Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Cynical Bypass of Barbara Lee to Fill Dianne Feinstein’s Senate Seat

By Emil Guillermo

A friend of mine who writes for the New York Times recently called me “cynical, but insightful.”  I took it as a compliment, though I’d rather be known as trusting, loving, caring, and giving, of course.

But cynicism is probably the best lens in which to view the announcement of the new U.S. Senator representing California. And maybe even all of national politics these days.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of Laphonza Butler to replace the great California Sen. Dianne Feinstein who passed away last week, was the best choice for him.

Just not for Californians and certainly not for the nation.

No knock against Butler, the president of Emily’s List, and an experienced political operative. But Newsom used her to bail him out of a bind of his own making.

After he filled the vacated Senate seat of Kamala Harris in 2021 with a Latinx male, Alex Padilla, he vowed his next appointee would be a Black female.

All good. But earlier this year, when Feinstein announced she would not run again, no less than three Democrats jumped in the ring.

Rep. Adam Schiff, of impeachment fame, was the implied favorite of Feinstein. Then there was Rep. Katie Porter, a darling of the left. The only Black female to announce her candidacy was the revered former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee, also known for being the only member of Congress to refuse to authorize military action in Afghanistan in 2001. She’s a progressive to be reckoned with.

And, of course, of the three announced candidates, Lee was the only one who could fulfill Newsom’s promise. She’s a formidable Black legislator who knows how Congress works from the inside out. Lee would have been a senator who would hit the ground running.

Oakland’s Barbara Lee was the best choice for California and the nation.

She just wasn’t, as I said, the best choice for Gavin Newsom.

The best choice for Gavin Newsom was…. Laphonza Butler.

Butler is like an H.R. choice that avoids any possible pushback. Who’s going to argue about an African American lesbian who is also a former union leader for nurses and caretakers?

Butler is a political godsend for Newsom.

Instead of being forced to choose between the three announced Democratic candidates for the Feinstein seat, Newsom simply had to find the best Black woman to fulfill his promise.

He didn’t even need the best person for the job.

Butler hasn’t been an elected official. She hasn’t passed legislation. She is political, yes. She’s also served as a member of the University of California Board of Regents, despite having no experience in higher education. But she learned on the job, and that’s what she’ll do in the Senate.

Reports say Butler’s appointment was not a “caretaker” position. She’s not just filling out Feinstein’s time and then stepping back down. Butler will be senator and can run again in 2024– as an incumbent.

And that was Newsom’s formidable gift to Butler. She would be a sitting senator, appointed by the governor.

Picking Butler also garners loyalty and fealty to Newsom for as long as necessary. It is Newsom’s enduring benefit to have birthed a lifelong ally personally placed in the Senate.

Genius move by Newsom? Certainly, the Butler pick served Newsom much more than the people of California.

Instead of making a choice that would show leadership as well as integrity by choosing Barbara Lee, Newsom did what was best for him.

It’s disappointing. I’ve known Newsom since his days as a San Francisco supervisor. As he terms out as governor, his star is rising the last few months as a Biden surrogate. But Newsom always seems to try too hard to get it right.  Like his hair. Like choosing Butler.

A little too calculated, political, … and cynical.

Of course, Newsom’s filling of the Feinstein vacancy isn’t even the most newsworthy one this week.

In an historic vote, the Republican Party, led by just eight MAGA extremists ousted its own House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield.

Now the Republicans are leaderless in the House, while the head of the party, the former president Donald Trump, is on trial in New York for fraud. The Republicans are in chaos.

And the Democrats? At least, they look orderly with Newsom’s cynical pick of Laphonza Butler.


Regular readers know I have been a vocal proponent against what I perceived as an ageist reaction to Feinstein remaining her Senate seat. I simply thought she earned the right to leave politics on her own terms.

I was aware of all the stories about her mental fitness the last few years. But to the very end, she managed to fulfill her duties and serve the people of California well. Remember, the Senate is all about seniority. That is the open secret about the Senate. And now, with her passing, how many people can even name the state’s two senators without resorting to Google?

Because of seniority, Feinstein had more power in her pinky finger. And now all of that that is lost.

As a reporter covering Feinstein over the years, I will never forget the times she stepped out of our journalist/politician roles to simply acknowledge me as a person and human being. It was a kindness you don’t expect. But she knew I wasn’t just some badgering guy with a microphone.

And then there was the time we shared a stage at San Francisco’s Lowell High School commencement in the 1980s.  I spoke before her as the graduate who became the local TV journalist who made good.

My speech was memorable and funny as I used a toilet plunger as a prop. At least, I thought it was funny. If I lost a segment of the audience, Feinstein knew how to win them all back.

She was like a cheerleader for democracy, full of life, and in minutes had the whole auditorium at her beck and call. To see a moment of Feinstein’s charismatic power, years before her ascent to the Senate was an honor to witness.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. See his micro-talk show on YouTube@emilamok1,  Facebook, and X, formerly twitter@emilamok

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