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“I am ready to serve”: Laphonza Butler steps onto the national political scene under unique circumstances
The EMILY’s List president will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate and just the third Black woman to serve in the Senate when she’s sworn in this week.
Just under 12 hours after news broke that Democratic Gov. GAVIN NEWSOM of California selected LAPHONZA BUTLER to complete the term of the late Sen. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, the EMILY’s List president took to X, the social app formerly known as Twitter, to accept the appointment.
“I’m honored to accept Gov. [Newsom]’s nomination to be a US senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California,” she said.
Butler will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate and just the third Black woman to serve in the Senate and the first since KAMALA HARRIS left the Senate to become President JOE BIDEN’s vice president. She will also be the third openly LGBTQ person to serve in the body, joining Sens. TAMMY BALDWIN (D-Wis.) and KYRSTEN SINEMA (I-Ariz.).
Butler is currently living in Maryland near EMILY’s List’s Washington headquarters and registered to vote in the state. But in response to questions about her residency, Newsom’s office said Butler is a longtime California resident and homeowner and she will re-register in California before being sworn in by Vice President Harris on Tuesday.
Chris Cadelago at Politico was the first to report the news of the appointment.
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Butler’s appointment comes two days after Sen. Feinstein’s death and fulfills a promise Newsom made to tap a Black woman to assume the role.
“Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people,” Newsom said in a statement. “I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.” (FWIW, Butler is also Newsom’s fourth high-profile appointment: Sen. ALEX PADILLA, California Attorney General ROB BONTA, and Secretary of State SHIRLEY WEBER.)
The urgency of the appointment is also notable due to the Senate’s narrow partisan split: Senate Democrats will hold a slim 50-49 majority until Butler is sworn in. Every vote for the rest of the year will count as Congress looks to fund the government for the upcoming year, provide additional aid to Ukraine, pass the farm bill, and extend authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration and Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“Governor Newsom’s swift action ensures that Californians maintain full representation in the Senate as we navigate a narrow Democratic majority,” Padilla said in a statement. “I look forward to working together to deliver for the people of California.”
Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER (D-N.Y.) added that Senate Democrats look forward to welcoming Butler to the body at a key time in the nation’s history.
“I’m confident that her breadth of work, acumen, and public service will meet this moment and be a great help to Senate Democrats as we continue to deliver for the American people,” Schumer added. “I look forward to senator-designate Butler’s swearing-in this week.”
The appointment also comes months before a primary election to elect the nominee who will most likely succeed Feinstein for a full six-year Senate term. Three House Democrats—Reps. ADAM SCHIFF, KATIE PORTER, and BARBARA LEE—are months deep into a hyper-competitive primary campaign.
Newsom made the appointment without limitations or preconditions on Butler for the seat in 2024. Butler could decide to join the fray, which would be an uphill climb for someone used to helping candidates win, not being one herself. But if she were to run and win, she would join TINA SMITH (D-Minn.), BRIAN SCHATZ (D-Hawaii), and TIM SCOTT (R-S.C.) as current senators who were appointed then later elected to their seats.
“I am thrilled that Newsom chose to respect the electoral process,” KAT CALVIN, a Los Angeles-based author of American Identity in Crisis and the CEO of Project ID Action Fund, a nonprofit organization dedicated to changing photo ID policy at every level. “I hope this year gives Laphonza a unique opportunity to contribute to the progress of California and the nation.”
In a statement to Supercreator News, Porter said Butler’s lesbian identity matters as LGBTQ+ Americans are increasingly under attack.
“As a labor leader, Laphonza Butler has spent her career standing up for women and working families,” Porter added. “I look forward to fighting for California with her.”
Lee, who publicly lobbied for the appointment with the aggressive backing of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Progressive Caucus, wished Butler well on X and said she looked forward to working with her.
“I am singularly focused on winning my campaign for Senate,” Lee said. “California deserves an experienced Senator who will deliver on progressive priorities. That’s exactly what I’m running to do.”
The CBC issued a statement in support of Butler’s appointment on Monday afternoon that read in part: “We look forward to welcoming Laphonza as the 59th member of the CBC and to continuing our work on behalf of the American people.”
And since dollar signs sometimes speak louder than words, Schiff’s campaign entered the chat by announcing the congressman raised $6.4 million for the campaign in the third quarter from more than 102,000 unique donors and has an impressive $32 million cash on hand.
“We continue to gain momentum as we approach the primary election,” Schiff campaign manager BRAD ELKINS said in a statement on the announcement first reported by Sahil Kapur at NBC News. “Thanks to Adam’s record of results, it’s clear Californians trust Adam to do whatever it takes in the US Senate to get things done for the people of California.”
Spokespeople for Lee and Schiff did not respond to a request for additional comment.
Butler was born in Mississippi and attended Jackson State University, a historically Black college that former NFL superstar and current Colorado Buffaloes coach DEION SANDERS put on the national stage in recent years. Before joining EMILY’s list as president in 2021, she was a partner at a San Francisco-based consulting firm and senior strategist on Harris’s unsuccessful presidential campaign. She also worked a stint as director of public policy and campaigns at Airbnb and advised Uber as the gig companies sought to prevent workers from being classified as employees instead of independent contractors.
Following almost two decades at the Service Employees International Union, where as president of the California division she worked to increase the minimum wage to $15 and raise taxes on the wealthy, she served on the University of California Board of Regents from 2018 to 2021.
“We are enormously proud of this historic pick and know that she will be a champion for working people in California and across the country,” EMILY’s List said in a post on X.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund President and CEO ALEXIS MCGILL JOHNSON called Butler a trailblazer whose career has been dedicated to advancing justice, equity, and progress.
“We’ve traveled across the country together to ensure our leaders protect access to abortion and our reproductive rights, McGill Johnson added. “The Senate just gained another reproductive health champion.”
MINI TIMMARAJU, president of Reproductive Freedom for All (formerly NARAL Pro-Choice America), agreed: “As the first woman of color to lead [EMILY’s List], she is committed to working tirelessly for reproductive freedom [and] our communities, she said. “[Butler] is a champion who will fight alongside us every step of the way in the US Senate.”
Ahead of Sen. Feinstein’s funeral this week, supporters, constituents, and loved ones will celebrate her life fighting for reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence, Newsom expressed optimism that Butler would continue advancing progress in the struggle.
“Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people,” he said. “From her time as President of EMILY's List to leading the state's largest labor union, she has always stood up for what is right and has led with her heart and her values.”
McGill Johnson pointed to Butler’s historic appointment as an appropriate way to honor the legacy of Feinstein, who was the first woman to represent California in the Senate
“This is history and a reminder to Black girls and women everywhere: We deserve to be in all the rooms where decisions are made,” McGill Johnson said.
Butler herself acknowledged with humility the massive shoes she’s stepping into as well.
“No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but so will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California,” she said. “I am ready to serve.”