Who is Laphonza Butler, California's new senator and champion of labor?

Butler has served as the president of pro-choice advocacy EMILY's List

Laphonza Butler.
Butler, above, will serve at least until Feinstein's successor is elected in November 2024
(Image credit: Ting Shen / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) died on Sept. 29 after three decades in the Senate, giving way to talks of who would fill her seat in Congress' upper chamber. 

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) provided an answer days later when he chose Laphonza Butler as the Golden State's next senator. Though she is not a native of California, Butler has become linked to the state as a Democratic strategist and labor organizer and is currently the president of a Democratic-led pro-choice advocacy group.

Upon her official appointment, Butler will shatter a number of barriers, including becoming the first Black lesbian to serve in the Senate. But how did this little-known political activist come to occupy a spot in Washington, D.C.?

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Butler's background

Forty-four-year-old Laphonza Butler was born in Magnolia, Mississippi. She attended Jackson State University, an HBCU, and later found a calling as a labor organizer. In this capacity, Butler "worked with nurses in Baltimore and Milwaukee, janitors in Philadelphia and hospital workers in New Haven, Connecticut" before moving to California in 2009, the Los Angeles Times reported. 

Butler eventually rose through the ranks of California's Service Employees International Union (SEIU). For more than a decade, she served as the president of SEIU Local 2015, the largest union in California. During this time, Butler "led efforts to address pay inequity for women in California and was a key advocate for raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — the first in the nation to do so," according to a profile in Essence magazine. She also spent time as the head of SEIU's United Long Term Care Workers (ULTCW), where she was "responsible for the strategic direction of more than 250,000 janitors, security officers, window cleaners, and food service workers across the country."

Butler was also a regent on the University of California Board for three years and additionally served as a senior adviser to Kamala Harris' 2020 presidential campaign. In 2021, she was named the president of EMILY's List, described on its website as "the nation's largest resource dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women to office." The group holds significant influence in liberal politics, as "an endorsement from the organization can make or break a campaign — particularly in a Democratic primary," Politico reported. Butler will step down as president of the group in order to serve in the Senate. 

Butler's appointment makes her "the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate," per a press release from Newsom's office. Butler, who has one daughter with her wife, will additionally be "the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress in American history and the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate following Vice President Kamala Harris."

Butler's political future

Butler 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 the press release, adding that she will champion "the very freedoms [Feinstein] fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence."

"I am honored to accept Gov. Newsom’s nomination to be a U.S. senator for a state I have long called home," Butler herself said in a statement. "Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s leadership and legacy are immeasurable. I will do my best to honor her by devoting my time and energy to serving the people of California and the people of this great nation."

Butler will serve as a California senator through at least the next statewide general election. This will occur alongside the upcoming presidential election in November 2024, and it's unclear if Butler will run for re-election at that time. However, a number of other California representatives have already entered the Senate race. This includes Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee. The latter had been seen as a top choice for Newsom to tap as Feinstein's replacement, given his commitment to appointing a Black woman, and Lee, a "longtime representative," is the "only Black woman running for the seat," CNN noted. But so as to avoid giving anyone an unfair advantage in 2024, Newsom decided he wouldn't choose anyone already running for the job.

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