July 20, 2024
"I can't help but think how proud Senator Feinstein would be to see someone as brilliant, accomplished and history making as Laphonza Butler taking her place," said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-NY.

In a historic moment of firsts for two Black women at the center of California politics, Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday swore Laphonza Butler into the United States Senate.

Butler, 44, a former adviser to Harris, became California’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator and the first openly lesbian person of color in Congress. She also became the only Black woman in the current Senate — and third in history — following Harris who left in 2021 after she was elected vice president.

The White House said President Joe Biden called Butler after the swearing in to congratulate her.

Butler’s big day came amid chaos in Congress’ other chamber, where Republicans ousted their own House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, also a historic first.

Across the Capitol, Butler began filling the final 15 months of the term California’s longest-serving senator, Dianne Feinstein, 90, a Democratic icon who died late last week. Feinstein will be memorialized in hometown of San Francisco at a public viewing Wednesday and service Thursday at City Hall.

On Tuesday, Butler, president since 2021 of EMILY’s List, a Washington-based organization that helps elect pro-choice Democratic women, was joined by her family in the Senate chamber as she took the oath. She made no remarks afterward, but received a warm welcome from the Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders.

“I can’t help but think how proud Senator Feinstein would be to see someone as brilliant, accomplished and history-making as Laphonza Butler taking her place,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat who was a close friend and ally of Feinstein.

“This is a historic moment for the Senate for California and for the entire country,” Schumer said. “Senator Butler is only the third Black woman to serve in U.S. Senate. Today the Senate takes another step toward fully reflecting our vibrant democracy. Laphonza’s biography can be told in two words: serving others.”

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Minority Leader from Kentucky, added that “as the Senate continues to mourn our late friend and colleague Dianne Feinstein, I know the people of California are grateful for Senator Butler’s willingness to serve.”

Though Butler, a Mississippi native, isn’t widely known in California, she’s well respected in Democratic circles and has spent years in political advocacy in the state.

Before joining EMILY’s List, Butler served as public policy campaign director for San Francisco-based Airbnb. She also was a partner at political consulting firm SCRB Strategies, where she was a candidate strategist and a senior adviser to Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign.

For the last two years she has lived in Maryland where she and her partner are raising a daughter.

Harris’ departure from the Senate to the vice presidency set in motion a series of events that ultimately led Gov. Gavin Newsom to choose Butler to fill Feinstein’s seat.

Newsom, who had taken some criticism from Black leaders for appointing Alex Padilla to Harris’ Senate seat after she became vice president in 2021, soon after pledged to appoint a Black woman to replace Feinstein, whose health was failing, if she didn’t finish her term.

But that was before Feinstein declared in February that she wouldn’t run for re-election next year and the race for her seat began to take shape as a three-way contest among established Democrats.

Rep. Adam Schiff has led in the polls and fundraising, followed by Reps. Katie Porter and Barbara Lee of Oakland. Last month, Newsom said he would keep his promise to appoint a Black woman if he needed to fill Feinstein’s seat. But he drew the ire of Lee, the only Black woman in the race, and her supporters by saying he would only appoint an “interim” replacement who wouldn’t seek a full term to avoid influencing the March 5 primary election.

However, when he chose Butler on Sunday night, there was no preconditions.

Newsom said he made clear to Butler she could run for a full term if she wanted, walking back his earlier “interim” remarks. Butler hasn’t commented whether she would do so, saying through a spokesperson Monday that this week she “is focused on respecting and honoring Sen. Feinstein’s legacy and getting ready to serve the people of California in the Senate. Politics can wait.”

In a Monday interview with the Los Angeles Times, she said she doesn’t know if she’ll run for a full term, and even accepting the appointment wasn’t easy. She said she loves her current job and her privacy, but also that she couldn’t lead an organization asking other women “to do something courageous for their communities and for their country and I not be willing to do the same.”

Political analysts said Newsom’s choice of Butler was politically savvy. Schiff, Porter and Lee all praised Butler’s appointment, as did Black, labor and other Democratic leaders.

“We commend Gov. Newsom for addressing Senate representation gaps and eagerly support our future Senator in her congressional journey,” said NAACP California Hawaii President Rick Callender.