Laphonza Butler was sworn into the U.S. Senate on the 3rd of October 2023, making history as the first openly lesbian Black senator to serve in Congress, and the first openly LGBTQ senator to represent California. She will also be the third Black woman to ever serve in the Senate.
Butler was appointed by California Governor Gavin Newsom to fill late California senator Dianne Feinstein’s seat for the remainder of the term through 2024. Feinstein died on the 28th of September 2023 at the age of 90, after a historic career as the longest-serving woman in the Senate.
Feinstein had declared earlier this year that she would retire after her term ended, putting the seat up for election in November 2024. The current candidates for the seat are Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam B. Schiff. Although Butler was not in the running prior to her appointment, it is unclear as of yet whether she will run next year.
Prior to Butler’s appointment and long before Feinstein passed away, Governor Newsom knew he needed a succession plan for Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s seat. He just didn’t want to believe it. Few people had better visibility into the late senator’s worsening condition than Newsom. And yet, he didn’t want to contemplate her dying. Even when the Senate appointment was on his agenda, Newsom viewed the hypothetical scenario as becoming a reality only if Feinstein stepped down before her term ended next year.
Governor Newsom had specified that his choice would be an ‘interim’ appointment and that he was unlikely to appoint any candidate already running for the position. Schiff and Porter are endorsed by former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), respectively. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on its part had urged Newsom to appoint Barbara Lee, a Black woman and California Rep. of 25 years.
The Congressional Black Caucus held a ceremonial swearing in for Butler shortly after she had been sworn in officially and released a statement saying that the CBC is looking forward to the “much-needed perspective” Butler will bring to the Senate with “her background and years of experience” and as the sole Black woman currently serving in the Senate.
Butler has a long career as a Democratic strategist, having served as a key advisor for Vice President Kamala Harris in her 2020 presidential campaign. Harris swore in Butler as senator in the official Senate ceremony Tuesday afternoon.
Although Butler was born in Mississippi and currently resides in Maryland, she owns a home in California and has spent a significant portion of her professional career serving the state. Butler led SEIU Local 2015, the largest union in California, for more than a decade and served on the governing board of the University of California system from 2018 to 2021. As president of the SEIU State Council, she advocated to boost California’s minimum wage requirement. Aside from her career in the public sphere, she has also worked as a director at Airbnb and has advised Uber.
Butler moved to Maryland in 2021 upon becoming the first Black woman president of Emily’s List, the national political action committee that supports pro-choice Democratic women in American politics. She held the position from 2021 until this week; when she stepped down to accept the Senate seat.
Democrats currently control the Senate 51-49. The quick appointment by Newsom will give the Democratic caucus more wiggle room on close votes, including nominations that Republicans uniformly oppose. Newsom drew sharp criticism after he announced that he intended to appoint a short-term caretaker to the seat, so as not to tip the scales in the 2024 Senate race.
The governor’s administration tried to stem criticism by saying that his appointee would be free to run in 2024 as well. His spokesperson, Anthony York, said the governor did not ask Butler to commit to staying out of the race. The deadline for candidates to file for the office is 8 December.
However, if Butler does choose to run, she would face steep challenges mounting a campaign just six months before the March 2024 primaries.
Only two black women have served in the US Senate so far – VP Harris and Carol Moseley Braun.
Feinstein had said in February she would not seek re-election in 2024. Barbara Lee is competing against two fellow congressional Democrats – Katie Porter and Adam Schiff – for the seat. Lee, who is the only Black woman running, is currently trailing Porter and Schiff in fundraising and polling.
Butler has never held elected office, but has a long track record in California politics. Prior to joining Emily’s List, she was a partner in the political consulting firm run by the veteran Newsom strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez.
“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 said in a statement.
Butler, who said she was honored to accept the nomination, posted on X: “No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, but I will do my best to honor her legacy and leadership by committing to work for women and girls, workers and unions, struggling parents, and all of California. I am ready to serve.”
“Not in my ancestor’s wildest dreams did I ever believe that I would be the third Black woman to serve in the United States Senate,” Butler said while speaking to the crowd, who met her with a standing ovation.
She says that the six days since her appointment have been extremely surreal. She was sworn into the position, which was previously held by Feinstein for the last 30 years.
Governor Newsom announced Butler’s appointment on X, previously Twitter, with the following words: “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 has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people … I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”