Laphonza Butler, the head of political action committee Emily’s List and an adviser on Kamala D. Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign, has been appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) to fill the vacant Senate seat held by the late Dianne Feinstein.
She will become the second Black woman after Harris to represent California in the Senate and the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress, a statement from Newsom’s office said. In picking Butler, Newsom kept his 2021 promise to appoint a Black woman to the chamber. Her selection also helps Democrats retain control of the Senate.
Here’s what to know about Butler.
Butler is the president of Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-abortion-rights Democrats to office across the country. She is the first woman of color to lead the organization, Emily’s List said in a September 2021 statement announcing her appointment.
Butler grew up in a working-class family in Magnolia, Miss. Her father was a small-business owner who died when Butler was 16, the statement from Newsom’s office said, and her mother was the sole provider for Butler and her two siblings, working a variety of jobs, including as a security guard and a bookkeeper.
In an interview with Elle in 2021, Butler recalled her mother working 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. as a nursing assistant.
“We weren’t the family that talked about elections or politics at the dinner table, but we were the family that talked about what it meant to be in service to others,” she said, adding that her mother’s influence “propels me forward.”
Butler has a political science degree from Jackson State University in Mississippi. She and her wife, Neneki, have a daughter named Nylah, according to Newsom’s office.
“As we mourn the enormous loss of Sen. Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.,” Newsom said in the statement by his office.
Butler has worked to expand and rebrand the organization, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which had established a constitutional right to an abortion. At the time of her appointment, she said she would focus on expanding the group’s reach through memberships and donations.
In an interview with Capital B last year, she said she hoped her presence as the group’s leader would encourage diverse candidates to step forward.
Butler has called abortion a “winning issue” for Democrats but said the party needs to pitch a holistic vision to voters — one with an emphasis on voting rights. “If we can’t elect the people who represent our values, then they can’t govern based on our values,” she told the 19th News.
She will step aside from her role at Emily’s List with her appointment to the Senate, the statement from Newsom’s office said.
Butler has worked in the labor movement for two decades. She served as the president of California’s biggest union, SEIU Local 2015, which represents home-care workers.
She has been a forceful advocate and strategist in the push for California to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, benefiting millions of low-wage female workers, according to Emily’s List.
Butler was also a partner at SCRB Strategies, now known as Bearstar Strategies, at a time when the political consulting firm’s clients included Newsom and Harris. She prominently served as an adviser to Harris’s 2020 presidential bid. Butler, a longtime ally of Harris, helped her shore up support from labor unions before Harris ran for California attorney general.
The biggest lesson she learned from working with Harris is to “lean into your ambition,” Butler told Elle.
Butler was also an adviser for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in California and had a stint working on public policy and campaigns with Airbnb.
Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff will compete in a primary for the Senate seat next year ahead of the general election in November. The high-profile contest between three of the state’s top Democrats is likely to be the most expensive congressional race in the country in 2024.
Schiff is a former federal prosecutor who has won the endorsement of former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and more than 100 other current and former elected state officials.
Lee has said she would bring a unique perspective to the Senate as a Black woman who emphasizes policies that advance working people and people of color.
Porter, a consumer advocate and bankruptcy professor, has the backing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and has portrayed herself as an outsider holding the powerful in Washington to account.
Maeve Reston contributed to this report.