Barabak: A solid Senate pick and a craven move by Gavin Newsom

Governor should never have appointed Laphonza Butler without a promise she wouldn’t run for a full term

Gavin Newsom was in his element, dishing out shady commentary to a hungry political press corps.

California’s governor was gleefully taking down Republicans at last week’s caterwauling presidential debate in Simi Valley as a marquee surrogate for the Biden campaign. He specifically targeted a longtime foe, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The two have agreed to square off on Fox News next month, with Newsom taking full credit. “If you can goad someone this easy, can you imagine what Kim Jong Un or Putin could do with this guy?” Newsom mocked.

That is an excellent question.

Newsom should ask himself: If he can be goaded that easily — caving to pressure and backtracking on a pledge to appoint a Senate caretaker to replace the late Dianne Feinstein — how can he ever stand up to a foreign power?

Newsom’s choice of Laphonza Butler, a Democrat with years of deep experience strategizing in campaigns and the labor movement, surprised many, primarily because her name was not among those widely circulated.

Butler was sworn in as the first out gay person of color to serve in the Senate and the first LGBTQ+ senator from California on Tuesday by Vice President Kamala Harris, a friend and former client. Butler, 44, also brings a new and welcome perspective to a Senate dominated by geriatrics and the wealthy.

But Newsom should never have appointed her — or anyone else — to fill Feinstein’s seat without a promise to serve out the rest of the late senator’s term and then step down once voters made their choice. Just last month, the governor promised to take care of it.

“It would be completely unfair to the Democrats who have worked their tails off,” Newsom said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” and he was dead on. “That primary is only a few months away.” I don’t want to upset the balance.”

Um. But never mind.

Newsom went ahead and demonstrated that he was perfectly fine upsetting that balance, assuming Butler decides to run for a full term. She has yet to make her intentions public.

If Butler decides to run, she will face no opposition from the governor.

“If that person decides she wants to run for re-election in 2024, she is free to do so,” spokesman Anthony York said hours before Newsom announced his choice on Sunday night. “There is absolutely no litmus test, no promise.”

And there has been no consistency from the governor.

Give credit where credit is due: his flip-flopping and wilting under political pressure are all the result of his own clumsiness.

In March 2021, Newsom was threatened with recall. Some Black voters were angry because the governor did not appoint a Black woman to replace Harris when she became vice president. Instead, he appointed Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator.

To make amends — and shore up his political base — Newsom made the rash promise to appoint a Black woman if Feinstein’s seat became available. Rep. Barbara Lee and her supporters were outraged when he changed his pledge to say his appointee would be a placeholder.

Lee is one of three candidates for the Senate seat, along with Reps. Adam B. Schiff and Katie Porter, and she is the only prominent Black woman in the race. She and others argued that Newsom’s pledge to serve as caretaker was an insult to Black women.

They ran an aggressive campaign urging Newsom to reconsider and appoint the Oakland legislator, giving Lee a significant advantage in the March 5 primary.

Then there was Newsom’s Sunday night pirouette, which reflected one of his worst characteristics: a reactive, short-sighted impulse to act in the moment without regard for long-term consequences. It’s something voters should think about if and when he runs for president.

After Harris was elected vice president, Newsom deliberated for weeks on who would be his successor. He publicly wrung his hands, bemoaning his predicament. He knew that no matter who was chosen, he’d end up antagonizing someone.

“This is not something I would wish on my worst enemy,” Newsom said of his predicament.

In a small-violin sort of way, the lamentation was cringey. After all, governors are constantly called upon to make difficult decisions. One of them is filling a Senate vacancy.

Hopefully, Newsom will never have to do so again.

Because he certainly messed up this one.

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