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Politics & Policy

Who is Laphonza Butler, California’s newest senator?

EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler addresses a Biden-Harris campaign rally at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., on June 23, the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision, which struck down a federal right to abortion. | Source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Following the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday evening that he will appoint Laphonza Butler to serve out the remainder of Feinstein’s term.

Butler is a longtime political player who leads the Democratic fundraising powerhouse EMILY’s List but isn’t a household name. So who is she? Here are a few things to know about California’s next senator. 

She’s Boosted Pro-Choice Women Candidates

Butler is president of EMILY’s List, a political organization that supports Democratic women candidates who favor abortion rights. EMILY’s List is known as a fundraising powerhouse, and raising huge sums of campaign cash is a must in any statewide California race. Newsom’s statement said she will step down from the organization.

With the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 decision to overturn women’s constitutional right to abortion, the issue has become a galvanizing one for many Democrats.

Her Appointment Makes History

Butler is California’s first openly LGBTQ+ and the first Black open lesbian to serve in Congress. She is the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate, following Vice President Kamala Harris.

“Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.,” Newsom said in a statement. 

Butler is married to Neneki Lee, and the couple shares a daughter. 

She’s a Maryland Resident With Deep California Ties

Butler currently resides in Maryland and is expected to re-register to vote in California before being sworn in. That could happen as early as Tuesday evening, when the Senate returns to session.

Butler reportedly owns a home in California and has deep political ties in the state. She is a longtime Democratic strategist and was an adviser to Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign. She has also been a member of the University of California Board of Regents and was a partner at SCRB Strategies, a California-based political consulting firm.

She’s a Labor Organizer Who Has Also Worked With Uber, Airbnb

Butler cut her teeth as a union organizer, with nearly 20 years of experience in the labor movement, according to the EMILY’s List website. 

At 30 years old, Butler became president of the nation’s largest home care workers union, Service Employees International Union Local 2015. She also served as vice president of SEIU International and president of the SEIU California State Council.

“Laphonza’s tenure as President of SEIU 2015 and SEIU California was inspirational and impactful—she achieved historic victories, including the passage of the nation’s first $15 statewide minimum wage that changed the lives of millions of Californians,” SEIU Local 2015 President Arnulfo De La Cruz said in a statement. 

She also briefly worked in the private sector for Airbnb. According to Bloomberg, Butler also advised and represented Uber in its labor dealings as the company faced pressure to classify drivers as employees. 

She’s Never Held Elected Office

Though she’s far from a political novice, Butler has never held elected office and would need to run to keep the Senate seat in 2024.

Butler’s appointment sets up a potentially tricky political calculus in the crowded contest to succeed Feinstein, which has been underway since the beginning of the year. Reps. Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter are running for Feinstein’s seat; the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus had urged Newsom to appoint Lee prior to Butler’s appointment. 

Newsom spokesman Anthony York said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. 

The deadline for candidates to submit paperwork to seek the office is Dec. 8. Should Butler enter the contest, she could set up a competition for the relatively small but influential group of Black voters in California and possibly undercut Lee’s chances.