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What to Know About Laphonza Butler, Governor Newsom’s Pick to Succeed Feinstein

4 minute read

California Governor Gavin Newsom tapped Emily’s List president and former labor leader Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat held by Dianne Feinstein, who died last week.

Butler would be California’s first openly LGBTQ U.S. Senator and the first Black lesbian to openly serve Congress. She would also be the second Black woman to represent California in the upper chamber after Vice President Kamala Harris.

“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. “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 will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”

Newsom had vowed more than two years ago that he would nominate a Black woman if a Senate vacancy emerged.

Butler wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, Monday that she was “honored to accept” the governor’s nomination. “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,” she wrote. “I am ready to serve.”

Butler will serve the remainder of Feinstein's term, which will run through 2024. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter and Adam Schiff have launched campaigns to be elected to the seat next year; it is not yet clear whether Butler will also run for a full six-year term.

Butler has been president of Emily’s List since 2021. She is the first Black woman to lead the national PAC, which supports pro-choice Democratic women in politics. In accepting the Senate seat, Butler will step down from her position at Emily’s List.

Before Emily’s List, Butler ran political campaigns and served as a key leader in Harris’ bid for the vice presidency and as a senior advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. She was also the president of California’s largest labor union—SEIU Local 2015—for more than a decade. Butler worked to achieve pay equity for women in California and advocated for raising the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, according to her bio on Emily’s List. She also previously worked as the director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb from 2020-2021, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Butler grew up in Magnolia, Miss. in a working-class family. Her father died when she was 16 after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Her mother worked multiple jobs to support the family. She went on to attend Jackson State University, an HBCU, where she received a bachelor’s degree in political science. She is married and has an 8-year-old daughter, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Butler has been living in Maryland, according to her bio on Emily's List. Newsom’s administration said she also owns property in California will change her voter registration there, according to the New York Times.

So far, the reception to Butler's announcement has been largely positive among Democrats on the Hill. Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from California, said in a statement on X that he was "honored to welcome her to the United States Senate."

"Throughout her career, Laphonza Butler has been a strong voice for working families, LGBTQ rights, and a champion for increasing women's representation in politics," Padilla said.

Senate Democrats are "delighted" to welcome Butler, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a statement. "I’m confident that her breadth of work, acumen, and public service will meet this moment and be a great help to Senate Democrats as we continue to deliver for the American People."

LGBTQ and abortion-rights advocates also celebrated her appointment. Tony Hoang, executive director of the LGBTQ rights advocacy group Equality California, said in a statement on X that "this historic appointment by Governor Newsom will give our LGBTQ+ community another voice in Congress at a time when our rights and freedoms are under attack across the country." Jodi Hicks, CEO and president of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California said in a statement that Butler "has been a national leader in the fight for reproductive freedom."

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com