Laphonza Butler, the woman selected by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to succeed the late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, is a longtime union leader and abortion rights advocate, who also will be the first out Black lesbian to enter Congress.
The appointment fulfills Newsom’s pledge to appoint a Black woman who had not announced plans to run for the seat, and in Butler, he picked someone with deep ties to several critical Democratic constituencies in the Golden State.
Butler will also be the sole Black woman serving in the Senate and only the third in US history. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday the incoming senator would be sworn in this week.
“I am humbled by the Governor’s trust,” Butler said in a statement Monday. “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 previously made history in 2021 by becoming the first woman of color to lead EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights.
In the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election, Butler worked at SCRB Strategies – a California-based political strategy firm now known as Bearstar Strategies – where she served as a senior adviser on then-Sen. Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign, according to EMILY’s List. She also served as an adviser on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, according to Butler’s LinkedIn page.
Butler previously held multiple roles at the Service Employees International Union, most recently serving as president of SEIU Local 2015 for nearly a decade. SEIU Local 2015 represents California’s long-term care workers and is the largest labor union in the state, the governor’s office said. Prior to joining EMILY’s List, Butler was a director at Airbnb.
Butler, who has a long history working in California politics, moved to Maryland in 2021 around the time she was chosen to lead EMILY’s List, public records show. She was registered to vote in Maryland in 2022, according to public records.
Responding to questions about Butler’s residency, Newsom’s office said Monday she had re-registered to vote in California ahead of her Senate appointment.
EMILY’s List board chair Rebecca Haile called Butler “a groundbreaking leader who has done terrific work” over her two years leading the group.
“EMILYs List was created to get more Democratic pro-choice women in government and I am thrilled to see my friend put that into action by taking on this role,” Haile said in a statement.
Butler, a Mississippi native, attended Jackson State University, according to EMILY’s List. She has served as a member of the University of California Board of Regents and as a board member of the National Children’s Defense Fund. She and her wife, Neneki, have a daughter, Nylah, Newsom’s office said.
Newsom was under intense pressure within California to choose a Black woman to succeed Harris when she was elected to the vice presidency. He instead appointed Alex Padilla, then California’s secretary of state, who became the first Latino senator from the state.
This year, many – including members of the Congressional Black Caucus – had urged Newsom to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee in case Feinstein’s seat became vacant. Lee filed to run for the seat after Feinstein announced earlier this year that she would not seek reelection in 2024, but Newsom said last month he would not appoint any of the candidates currently seeking the office. His office said Monday there were no conditions placed on Butler’s appointment and any decision to seek a full term next year would be her own.
Newsom has described Butler as “an advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris,” who will “carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein.”
“As we mourn the enormous loss of Senator Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for – reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence – have never been under greater assault,” Newsom said in his announcement. “Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”