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Who is Laphonza Butler, California’s new senator?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has picked Butler, the president of Emily’s List, as the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s successor.

Laphonza Butler speaking at a lectern in front of several American flags.
Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler addresses a Biden-Harris campaign rally on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson, decision which struck down a federal right to abortion, at the Mayflower Hotel on June 23, 2023, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday that he will appoint Laphonza Butler, the president of the abortion rights group Emily’s List, as the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s replacement, helping Democrats retain control of the closely divided chamber.

Butler fulfills two criteria that Newsom sought in Feinstein’s temporary successor: She is a Black woman, and she is not currently campaigning in the 2024 Democratic primary for Feinstein’s seat. Since Kamala Harris became vice president, there has not been a single Black woman serving in the Senate — a void Newsom had promised to fill.

Newsom said he wanted to choose someone who was not currently competing for the seat to avoid the impression that he was putting his finger on the scales in the March 5 primary: “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” Newsom said on Meet the Press earlier this month.

However, most Californians said in a September Berkeley IGS poll that they wanted Newsom to appoint someone who was prepared to run for a full term in 2024. Butler is free to jump into the race, but she could face an uphill battle against well-known and well-funded opponents who have already been campaigning for months.

California Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter are the current frontrunners in the primary, polling at 20 percent and 17 percent support, respectively, in the Berkeley survey. That’s in line with other, limited polling that’s available. Congressional Black Caucus Chair Steven Horsford wrote to Newsom on Sunday urging him to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee, who he presented as the most qualified Black woman for the job. She was polling in third at 7 percent support in the same Berkeley survey, and tends to run roughly 10 percentage points behind Porter in other polls as well. All three have sizable war chests for the campaign, with Schiff, Porter, and Lee having $29.8 million, $10.3 million, and $1.4 million on hand, respectively, at the end of the second quarter.

Should she choose to run, Butler’s extensive experience in advocacy and political campaigns could help her overcome Schiff, Porter, and Lee’s head start. In addition to supporting Democrats’ pro-abortion-rights messaging, Butler served as a senior adviser to Harris when she ran for president in 2020 and was a prominent labor leader in California for decades. Those roles, in addition to her time atop Emily’s List, could provide the network needed to quickly raise funds and organize on the ground.

At the moment, however, she and her allies appear to be placing focus on the immediate future: “Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women’s representation in politics,” California Sen. Alex Padilla said in a statement. Butler is expected to be sworn in on Wednesday.

Who is Laphonza Butler?

In 2021, Butler became the president of Emily’s List, which helps elect women who support abortion rights across the US. She was presiding over the organization when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and has been at the forefront of helping Democrats hone their message on abortion rights while tying the issue to a broader fight for voting rights.

Ahead of the 2022 midterms, Butler told the New York Times, “We think that every Republican running for office has to make their intentions known to voters about where they stand on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions.”

She also served as an adviser to Harris’s 2020 campaign and has continued to advocate for her and other pro-abortion-rights women in office. In March, Emily’s List identified 18 House races where it will be defending incumbent Democrats.

Before that, Butler was a labor organizer for nearly two decades, leading the biggest union in California and one of the US’s largest home care workers union, SEIU Local 2015. In that position, she was at the forefront of the successful fight for a $15 minimum wage in California. Arnulfo De La Cruz, the union’s current president, said that her work uplifted union workers, many of whom are women of color and immigrants.

“For over a decade, she gave voice to those who were historically voiceless,” he said, noting that the union has yet to endorse a candidate in the primary. “In this moment in this country, pro-worker voices like Laphonza are really imperative to ensure progress for working families.”

Butler has also been an executive at Airbnb, an adviser to Uber on its dealings with unions, and served on the board of regents for the University of California.

Butler was registered to vote in Maryland as recently as last year after moving to the area when she became president of Emily’s List. But she reportedly owns a house in California and will re-register in the state before assuming office.

What Butler’s appointment means for the Senate

Butler’s appointment to the Senate is historic: She is the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate and the first Black lesbian to serve in the chamber. She is only the third Black woman to ever serve in the Senate, after Harris and Carol Moseley Braun, and the third openly LGBTQ person to do so, after Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema.

“The appointment of Laphonza Butler to the Senate is a landmark moment in the fight for social, racial, and economic justice,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said in a statement. “Laphonza brings a compelling voice for abortion rights, the labor movement, and civil rights into Congress.”

On Monday, Butler promised to continue Feinstein’s legacy by “committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California.”

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