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Who is Laphonza Butler, California’s new senator?

Antonio Ray Harvey/Inland Valley News
Who is Laphonza Butler, California’s new senator?
Laphonza Butler is serving in the U.S. Senate, representing California. PHOTO: COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA BLACK MEDIA

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has announced that his choice to succeed U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who passed away on Sept. 29, is Laphonza Butler, a labor leader and the president of EMILY’s List — the country’s most extensive resource for women in politics.

“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. Laphonza carries the baton left by Senator Feinstein, and will continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington, D.C.,” Newsom said in a statement released Oct. 1.

Butler is making history as California’s first openly LGBTQ+ U.S Senator and the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the U.S. Congress. She joins 47 other Democrats and three independents who caucus with the Democrats in the Senate for the remainder of Feinstein’s term, which ends in December 2024.

Fighter for working people

“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people, and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate,” Newsom stated.

In a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, Butler said, “I’m honored to accept Gov. Gavin Newsom’s nomination to be U.S. Senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation.”

Assemblymember Mike Gipson (D-Carson), a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC), says he is proud of Newsom’s choice.

“As a proud member of the California Black Caucus and Assemblymember for #AD65, I am extremely proud that Gavin Newsom stood by his commitment as he always has,” Gipson wrote on X. “And I appreciate him for standing by his word and providing a great successor amidst the passing of the honorable Senator Feinstein.”

“I am always excited when a Black Woman is elevated. Laphonza Butler will represent California well and will bring a perspective to the U.S. Senate that is desperately needed as a Black, LGBTQ+ mother, organizer and labor leader,” said Kellie Todd Griffin, founding convener of the California Black Women’s Collective.

“My goal is to lift up the voices and needs of Black Women throughout the state,” Todd Griffin continued. “That’s what we did three years ago when we created Keep the Seat and what we did in this case. We will keep pushing for what we believe is right regardless of the outcomes.”

Former labor leader

Butler, recognized as a Democratic Strategist and a labor leader, served for seven years as President of SEIU United Long Term Care Workers (ULTCW). The union she led represents over 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers across California.

Newsom, who has the constitutional responsibility to appoint a replacement, promised he would select a Black woman if Feinstein chose to step down before her term ended in 2024. He made that statement in 2021 after he chose Alex Padilla to fill the vacancy left by Sen. Kamala Harris when she resigned to become vice president. Black women groups had been urging him to appoint a Black woman to succeed Harris.

Until Butler was seated, the U.S. Senate had no Black women members, even though Black women are the most influential — and most loyal — voting group within the Democratic party. More than 90% of Black women voted for Joe Biden in the last presidential election.

‘She will be deeply missed’

Before Newsom’s announcement that he had chosen her to succeed Feinstein, Butler expressed her condolences on X. She wrote, “I’m saddened to hear of the passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Not only was she a titan in the Senate, but a legendary figure for women in politics and around the country. Her legacy and achievements will not be forgotten. My prayers are with her family. She will be deeply missed.”

Since Feinstein’s passing was announced, pressure had been mounting on Newsom to quickly appoint an interim Senator in her place. Three well-known candidates running to succeed her in the 2024 election are Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA-12), Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA-28) and Rep. Katie Porter (D – CA-45).

Lee, the only Black woman contending for Feinstein’s seat, congratulated Butler in a post on X.

“I wish Laphonza well and look forward to working closely with her to deliver for the people of the Golden State,” she wrote.

Congressional Black Caucus

On Oct.1, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) wrote a letter to Newsom urging him to appoint Lee.

“She is the only person with the courage, the vision and the record to eradicate poverty, face down the fossil fuel industry, defend our democracy and tirelessly advance the progressive agenda,” CBC Chairman Steven Horsford (D-Nevada), stated in the letter to Newsom. “For these reasons, we strongly urge you to appoint Congresswoman Barbara Lee to the United States Senate.”

Newsom had expressed that his appointee would not participate in the 2024 election out of respect for the candidates already running. However, this stance has changed. Now the decision to run in the 2024 election lies with Butler. The deadline for candidates to file for the office is Dec. 8.

Butler, a native of Magnolia, Mississippi, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Jackson State University, an HBCU located in Mississippi.

Laphonza Butler, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, U.S. Senate