Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler made history Tuesday when she was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris as the first out Black lesbian to enter Congress and the only Black woman presently serving in the Senate.
Butler, who was appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, becomes only the third Black woman to serve as a US senator.
Her swearing-in provides some relief to an already narrow Senate majority now facing the uncertainty of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez’s political future amid calls for his resignation from colleagues over his federal indictment.
Butler, a longtime union leader and abortion rights advocate, became the first woman of color in 2021 to lead EMILY’s List, an organization dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights.
She also worked in the lead-up to the 2020 election at a California-based political strategy firm now known as Bearstar Strategies, where she served as a senior adviser on then-Sen. Harris’ presidential campaign.
Harris, formerly the sole Black woman in the Senate, vacated her seat in 2021 after her election as vice president. Newsom was under intense pressure within California to choose a Black woman to succeed her, but instead appointed Alex Padilla, then California’s secretary of state, who became the first Latino senator from the state.
Newsom later pledged to appoint a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat should the senator resign before her term’s end. He said last month that he would not appoint any candidates running for Feinstein’s seat, though Newsom’s office said Monday that no conditions had been placed on Butler and that any decision to run for a full term would be her own.
Following her swearing-in ceremony, Butler declined to respond to reporters’ questions about whether she will seek the seat next year.
California will hold two Senate elections next November: a special election for the remaining months of Feinstein’s term until January 2025 and another for a full six-year term.
Those who have announced they’d be running for the seat Butler now occupies include a trio of House Democrats: Reps. Adam Schiff, a former House Intelligence chairman who is backed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi; Katie Porter, a former deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; and Barbara Lee, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and a member of House Democratic leadership. Also in the race are Democrat Lexi Reese, a tech executive, and Republican lawyer Eric Early, who ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2022.
CNN’s Kyung Lah and Kaanita Iyer contributed to this report.