April 13, 2024
Supporters call the former California labor leader and current president of Washington-based political organization EMILY's List "smart and savvy,"

SAN FRANCISCO — Laphonza Butler, the former head of California’s largest workers’ union who leads the powerful EMILY’s List and is a confidante to Vice President Kamala Harris, is being praised by supporters as a “smart and savvy” progressive activist and respectable choice by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the remaining term of the late U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Butler, 44, will become the first Black Lesbian to hold a seat in Congress. But she remains largely unknown to most Californians and is already coming under scrutiny for her limited Golden State credentials. A Mississippi native, she spent little more than a decade here before moving to Washington, D.C., two years ago to lead the non-profit that works to elect women to political office.

She will be sworn in by Harris on Tuesday in Washington. In an online post Monday morning, Butler said she was honored to accept the role.

“No one will ever measure up to the legacy of Sen. Dianne Feinstein,” she said, “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.”

That Butler has never held elected office before and is being appointed rather than elected to the post is “a non traditional route on top of a non traditional route,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. Although Butler is more progressive than Feinstein and will bring a fresh approach to the role, she said, Butler, like Feinstein, will surely be a solid Democratic vote.

“She’s a younger woman, a Black woman, a lesbian and an out lesbian,” Walsh said. “She’s going to bring all those experiences, as well as her time in union politics and as a campaign operative working to elect more women — it will be a different kind of a voice.”

Butler is married to Neneki Lee, and together they have an 8-year-old daughter, Nylah, who is attending grade school in Washington.

Despite the governor keeping his promise to appoint a Black woman, Newsom’s selection is causing conflict among some Black activists, who had lobbied the governor to appoint longtime Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of three congressional Democrats already running for Feinstein’s seat in the March primary.

“This is really a snarky move, to me,” said Julianne Malveaux, a progressive Black activist and immediate past dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at Cal State LA. “He knows that Black women will never raise their voices against another Black woman. And so his appointment mutes us in some ways.”

Whether Butler will campaign for the permanent seat, which would take millions of dollars and a vast political network, is uncertain. Butler hasn’t publicly addressed the issue, saying only in her online post that she is honored by Newsom’s “trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation.”

Newsom put no restrictions on her political future, despite saying in a “Meet the Press” interview last month that he would appoint an interim to avoid influencing the race. In a statement announcing his choice, Newsom called Butler “an advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people” and someone who will “carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington, D.C.”

Butler was head of Service Employees International Union in Los Angeles when she first volunteered for Kamala Harris’s campaign for state attorney general in 2010. Butler joined political strategist Debbie Mesloh for that race’s last 72-hour stretch, canvassing the state from San Diego to San Francisco knocking on doors and visiting churches. Butler was the first labor leader to support Harris, who was then San Francisco’s district attorney, Mesloh said.

“I found her to be practical, smart, savvy and instinctive with people,” Mesloh said Monday of Butler. “She was a hard worker wanting the right outcome and having the guts to kind of walk the walk.”

Butler grew up in a working-class family in Magnolia, Mississippi. Her father died of a terminal illness when she was 16, leaving her mother to support her and her two siblings as a classroom aide, a security guard and bookkeeper, according to Newsom’s announcement. Butler earned a political science degree from Jackson State University, a Historically Black University. In 2018, she was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents, where she served until 2021. She has also served as a board member for the National Children’s Defense Fund, BLACK PAC, and the Bay Area Economic Council Institute. She was named a fellow for the MIT Community Innovators Lab and a “Champion for Change” by President Obama.

Butler ran political campaigns and led strategy efforts for numerous organization and companies, including Airbnb. She worked as a senior adviser for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 and advised Harris’s short-lived campaign for president in 2020, before Harris became President Biden’s running mate. Butler apparently still owns a home in Southern California.

Amelia Ashley-Ward, a San Francisco publisher and activist, was born in Butler’s Mississippi hometown — a place where Ashley-Ward remembers walking through the forest with a stick to ward off snakes. She doesn’t know Butler, but said the school she attended was “right up the street from our family home.” And while Butler seems to have the background and smarts for the job, Ashley-Ward had hoped Newsom would appoint Lee instead and believes that Newsom “totally disregarded how we felt.”

Mesloh, however, believes Butler is an “excellent pick.”

“She talks a lot about the reason that she went to EMILY’s List was because of her little girl,” Mesloh said. “Laphonza felt an obligation and a sense of wanting to make sure that for her daughter, she was doing all she could.”

State Sen. Scott Weiner from San Francisco also praised Newsom’s pick as “a smart choice.”

“She’s really smart, progressive,” he said. “She brings a lot of strength to the table.”