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Gavin Newsom Taps Laphonza Butler to Fill Sen. Feinstein’s Seat, Rejecting Calls to Pick Barbara Lee

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Image Credit: Reuters

California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving woman to ever serve in the Senate, has died at the age of 90. Feinstein had previously announced plans to retire at the end of this term, sparking an ongoing race to replace her open seat that’s been led by California Congressmembers Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. California Governor Gavin Newsom has tapped Laphonza Butler, the president of the Democratic pro-abortion organization EMILY’s List and a former leader of the California SEIU, as Feinstein’s temporary replacement. Butler will become the only Black woman in the Senate and California’s first openly LGBTQ+ senator. For more on Newsom’s choice of Butler, the race to replace Feinstein and the late senator’s political legacy, we continue our conversation with journalist Sasha Abramsky, whose latest piece for The Nation is titled “Dianne Feinstein’s Empty Seat.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Sasha Abramsky, if you can talk about this latest news, last night California Governor Gavin Newsom tapping Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat of Dianne Feinstein? The significance of this interim appointment?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: I think it’s an extraordinarily smart move of Gavin Newsom’s. He put himself into a bit of a bind in 2021. He made a pledge that he would appoint, if he had the opportunity to appoint, an African American female to the Senate. Now, the problem that he then encountered was, in the interim, Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, Adam Schiff had all thrown their hat into the ring for the primary season in early 2024. That was after Dianne Feinstein had announced that she wasn’t going to run for reelection in 2024. Well, Newsom didn’t want to tip the scales there. And I think he was very wise not to do so. You have an open primary. You have three extremely credible candidates, all three of which have very, very strong congressional records, and all three of which have put in a tremendous amount of effort to build up their political infrastructure in the run-up to those primaries. So Newsom didn’t want to tip the scales. And Barbara Lee was lobbying very, very hard to be announced as the interim senator. And I think quite rightly, Newsom said, “You know what? I’m going to step back out of this fight.”

And so he turned to somebody who wasn’t an elected official. He turned to the EMILY’s List president, Laphonza Butler. And she has a strong track record. She’s got a strong record as a labor leader. She’s got an extremely strong record as the president of EMILY’s List. She’s defending LGBTQ rights. She’s defending abortion rights. She’s a very, very credible senator. And she obviously struck a good deal with Newsom, because what he didn’t extract from her was a promise not to run in 2024. So she’s a caretaker senator, but if she wants to throw her hat in the ring and file paperwork by December 8th, she can throw her hat in the ring and become the fourth candidate for the open seat.

I think it’s going to be a fascinating political time. I’m really, really glad that he appointed somebody so quickly. I think it could have been a very drawn-out process. The Democrats don’t have a big enough majority in Congress, in the Senate, for that to be a safe move. I think it was a far smarter move to do this quickly, to put somebody in power in the Senate and to move on, because now it means that the Democrats again have a workable majority in the Senate, and they can start passing more legislation. I think he did something very sensible yesterday.

AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t this a slap in the face to Barbara Lee? Because his reasoning was that he didn’t want to tip the race, as you pointed out, with these three strong candidates, but unlike when McCain died and Senator Kyl came back, truly interim, was not running, he has now introduced a fourth person who could be a candidate — right? — Laphonza Butler. And, of course, he had gone back on his word to appoint an African American woman to the Senate after Kamala Harris became the vice president, so he was going to do it. The question was — I mean, as late as Sunday, the Congressional Black Caucus sent him a letter saying he should appoint Barbara Lee, who would fill out the term and then run with the others.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah, I mean, Barbara Lee is clearly extremely unhappy by this. And, you know, to a degree, she’s a little bit unlucky by the process, the way it’s unfolded, the timing of Dianne Feinstein’s death and so on. But if you look at the polling, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff are pretty far ahead in the polling, and Barbara Lee is a distant third. If you look at the fundraising, the same thing holds. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff have built up these large political war chests, and Barbara Lee is far behind in the fundraising. Now, that’s not because her politics aren’t good. It’s not because she doesn’t have, you know, a very noble history in Congress.

I think, at least in part, it’s because Californians are looking for a generational change. Dianne Feinstein was 90 years old. She was the longest-serving female U.S. senator. Dianne Feinstein had a very, very strong, very important history. You talked about it in your program earlier. But she was 90 years old, and she should have retired years ago. If you’re looking for a generational change, it’s very hard to justify how you get that generational change when you shift from a 90-year-old to a 77-year-old, which is how old Barbara Lee is, I believe. It’s much easier to see that you get a generational change if you shift to somebody who’s in their fifties, or maybe sixties, and who’s got a realistic chance of serving in the Senate for two, three, maybe even four terms. Now, Laphonza Butler fits that. She’s in her fifties. She’s young. She’s dynamic. She could, if she makes a good effort at it, be there for a long time.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying, “Look, we need to have an open competition to see who the next senator is going to be.” Now, maybe Barbara Lee will win. Maybe when that competition is held, maybe when the open primary is held of all the major candidates, voters will say, “Look, we like Barbara Lee’s policies best. We’re willing to overlook the fact that it’s not really a generational change, and we’re going to go for Barbara Lee.” But she’s got to earn that. I don’t think anybody has the right to say, “I’m going to be the next U.S. senator.” You’ve got to work to be the next U.S. senator. And that goes for Laphonza Butler. It goes for Adam Schiff. It goes for Katie Porter. It goes for Barbara Lee. So I think, yes, Newsom is going to attract some flak for this choice, but I think, overall, he did something politically smart, and he did something that really is going to help keep the Senate functioning over the coming months.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting choice — on the one hand, she was a union leader, represented home healthcare workers of the SEIU in California; more recently, of course, an adviser to Kamala Harris, the vice president, and advised Uber as it fought the California law requiring app companies to grant workers employee benefits.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yes, she did. And I think when we come to the primaries, if she decides to throw her hat in the ring for the 2024 Senate race, when it comes to the primaries, that’s certainly something that’s going to be discussed, because you’re right: She has a very progressive track record with the SEIU, which is one of the better and most progressive unions in California, extremely effective, and yet, at the same time, as you said, she’s been on the wrong side of this issue with Uber.

And, you know, California has had a whole bunch of labor disputes, it’s had a whole bunch of legislation around labor, and it’s had this initiative that was trying to essentially treat Uber drivers and Lyft drivers as employees, which they are. They should get benefits. They should get paid sick time. They should get healthcare. They should get retirement. And they don’t. And she’s lobbied very hard on the side of Uber against that policy change.

So I do think that come the primary, that’s going to be something she has to talk about. If she decides to run for the Senate, she is going to have to prove her progressive credentials. I think there’s no doubt about that. But I think she also has a very strong record over most of her career around union issues, around progressive issues that are dear to progressives’ hearts in California and elsewhere. I think she’s a very credible senator.

AMY GOODMAN: Sasha Abramsky, can you talk about the legacy of Dianne Feinstein?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: It’s huge. And, you know, you don’t have to agree with everything she did or every policy statement that she made, but over the course of 50-plus years, she was a central presence in California politics. She was the mayor of San Francisco. She was one of the most effective senators in California history. She had some huge policy accomplishments.

She took on the gun control — the gun lobby, and she introduced significant gun control of high-velocity, high-power weaponry. And that was effective. It’s now lapsed, and we’re now seeing the consequences of that with these ghastly mass shootings. But in its day, her gun control measures were effective.

She took on the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11, when there was this sort of worldwide torture network at these CIA-run black sites. She took that on, and she forced Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, these huge hearings that resulted in this mammoth report exposing just how deep the torture rot had gone. I think in her legacy —

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is extremely significant, because she was actually going against President Obama, who didn’t want the report released, and she was pushing for it. I wanted to go back to December 2014, the Senate Intelligence Committee releasing that summary of its investigation into the CIA’s post-9/11 torture campaign. Senator Feinstein, at the time chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, outlined the report’s key findings.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: First, the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not an effective way to gather intelligence information. Second, the CIA provided extensive amounts of inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to the White House, the Department of Justice, Congress, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public. Third, CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed. And fourth, the CIA program was far more brutal than people were led to believe.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that was, at the time, the Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein. Ultimately, though, she would support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Your final thoughts, Sasha?

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah, look, when I heard her speak in 2014 at those Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, I thought it was one of the most effective policy interventions I had ever heard, because she laid it out to the American public, the moral stakes of going down this torture road. Now, that said, you’re right: She was on the wrong side on a whole bunch of other issues. She’s a complicated figure.

But my overall thoughts on Dianne Feinstein, I thought she was an extremely powerful presence, an extremely dignified presence, and I thought the last few years of her life were tragic. And I wrote about it quite extensively for The Nation. There was nothing that anyone could take pleasure in watching her decline over the last few years. She should have retired on a high note in 2018. She would have gone out with an absolutely extraordinary record. She decided to run for reelection. She ran. She won. And then the last few years were a very public slow decline, a physical decline, a cognitive decline. She clearly needed help performing basic functions in the U.S. Senate, and it was humiliating, and it was embarrassing. I don’t think anyone —

AMY GOODMAN: And the question was, really, in the case of Dianne Feinstein, was that her — was she capable of making these decisions, or perhaps was it those who wanted to ensure that if Gavin Newsom made that promise for an African American senator, that he did not choose Barbara Lee — at the time the three people who were running for that office, Nancy Pelosi, in particular, whose oldest daughter became the sort of protector of Dianne Feinstein, and not wanting Barbara Lee, of these three candidates, when Pelosi’s choice was Adam Schiff to replace her as the senator from California.

SASHA ABRAMSKY: Yeah, I think there were clearly behind-the-scenes machinations going on. That was very apparent. And there were negotiations going on behind the scenes around what would happen if and when she either retired or died. But I think none of that negates the fact that, you know, watching a public figure decline in the way that we watched Dianne Feinstein decline over the last few years, it was really sad. And, you know, coming back to what I was saying, I don’t think anyone did, and I don’t think anyone should, take pleasure in watching that. It was a real sort of terrible ending to a storied career. She clearly wasn’t performing at 100%. She clearly wasn’t representing California at 100%. And by the end of her life, you know, there were these daily stories of confusion, of inability to sort of navigate the process and the system without extensive help from her aides. And I think it was very humiliating. And I think also it was a very public display of the risks of gerontocracy. You have so many senators, so many congressmen, you have so many top political officials who are very, very elderly. And the way the Senate works, in particular, it privileges seniority, and so there’s no incentive to retire. And I think, you know, we should have a national conversation about this. And I think Dianne Feinstein’s last couple years in office really should trigger that conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Sasha Abramsky, we want to thank you for being with us, West Coast correspondent for The Nation, author of several books, his forthcoming one on the Trump era. We’ll link to your pieces for The Nation and Truthout.

When we come back, October is National Domestic Violence Awareness and Prevention Month. We’ll look at the remarkable story of a domestic violence survivor, Tracy McCarter, a nurse and grandmother jailed after her husband died of a stab wound when she defended herself during an altercation. Her imprisonment sparked outrage across the country. Back in 30 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: “Dear Mama” by Tupac. Twenty-five years after his killing, a suspect was arrested and charged in Las Vegas Friday with Tupac’s 1996 murder. Duane Keith Davis wrote in his 2019 memoir he provided the gun used in the drive-by shooting. Police said Davis, quote, “was that shot caller for this group of individuals that committed this crime.” That was the murder of Tupac Shakur.

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Survived & Punished: Meet Tracy McCarter, a Nurse Jailed, Then Cleared, for Stabbing Abusive Husband

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