After the passing of Senator Dianne Feinstein on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom wasted no time in naming someone to fill her seat. Laphonza Butler will be the state's new junior Senator, and if most people haven't heard of her before, it's probably because she's never held public office.
In fact, she doesn't even live in California.
In selecting Laphonza Butler as interim Senator, Governor Newsom made it sound like it was just an off-the-cuff decision.
"I'm like, 'Wait a moment, what about Laphonza?'" he told the media. "And I was like, 'Do you have her new number?'"
But Sonoma State political science professor David McCuan, said there was a lot more thought put into it than that.
"If you look at this selection, it's both fascinating and cynical at the same time," he said. "Remember, this is a guy who's not running for President, while running for President. And at the same time that he's doing that, trying to make history with his appointments."
He's certainly done that. Butler will be only the second African American woman to serve as California Senator and the first openly LGBTQ person in that position. She leads an organization called Emily's List that helps women candidates supporting abortion rights. She has been a close political strategist for Vice President Kamala Harris, in addition to working for SEIU 2015, one of the most powerful labor unions in the State.
McCuan said all of those things would help Newsom in a potential run for President.
"But also at the same time, by picking a political insider, this is someone who is also part of the political lineage and part of the political 'cousin' relationship that exists between Governor Newsom and Vice President Kamala Harris," said McCuan.
But what's rubbing some people the wrong way is the fact that Butler lives in the State of Maryland. She reportedly owns a home in California and would need to change her voter registration before being sworn in. That doesn't sit well with Carolyn Wysinger.
"We want people who are in our area, have been in our communities, have been on the ground level," she said. "And that's unfortunately not the case in this particular instance."
But Wysinger, an El Cerrito City Councilmember and a member of "Black Women Organized for Political Change," has another reason for being disappointed. She is a supporter of Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who was hoping to get the appointment to help her chances of winning the Senatorial election next year.
Newsom said he wouldn't name someone who was currently running because he didn't want to influence the primary. But he now says he has put no restrictions on Butler entering the race after she's in office.
"Well, I wouldn't have appointed someone I didn't respect and admire and someone I couldn't back up and vouch for. So, she'll make that decision," Newsom said.
"I wouldn't say it's a double-cross. I'd say it's something that may happen," said Wysinger.
McCuan isn't buying that the Governor made the selection without knowing whether Butler is interested in joining the race.
"That would be called political malpractice by staff if he were to do that. You have some idea," he said.
McCuan said it's rare for a political strategist to become the candidate, and there's no telling how it may play out.
"We don't generally see political operatives and strategists being the person, being the principal. They're usually helping the principal in so many ways with those skill sets," he said. "So, in some ways, it's like a fascinating case study of what will come over the next, say, one to two years."
The fact he chose someone most people have never heard of shows Newsom is playing chess not checkers. This is political gamesmanship at the highest level and the real objective here may not be just a seat in the Senate but a seat in the Oval Office.
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