Laphonza Butler is set to make history as the first LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the Senate.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) appointed her just two days after the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who was the longest-serving female senator.
“I am honored to accept Gov. Newsom’s nomination to be a U.S. Senator for a state I have long called home,” Butler said in a statement after the appointment.
“I am humbled by the Governor’s trust. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s leadership and legacy are immeasurable. I will do my best to honor her by devoting my time and energy to serving the people of California and the people of this great nation.”
Here’s what to know about Butler before she’s sworn in Wednesday:
She’s making history
Butler, 44, will not only be the first LGBTQ+ person to represent California, but also the first openly Black lesbian ever to serve in the Senate.
She also becomes only the third Black woman to serve in the Senate — and the only sitting Black woman senator. She will be sworn in Wednesday by Vice President Kamala Harris, who was the second Black female senator to serve and who also represented California in the upper chamber.
Newsom had previously promised to appoint a Black woman if the opportunity presented itself. Though many wanted to see Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) appointed, including the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), Butler’s appointment has still generated approval from leading Black organizations.
In a statement, the CBC celebrated Butler’s appointment, saying that her background and experience will bring a “much-needed perspective” to the Senate.
“For many years, Laphonza Butler has been a champion for women and girls, students, and union workers, and we believe she will bring that same fight to the U.S. Senate on behalf of Californians and our entire nation,” the CBC said.
“As the first lesbian Black woman in the U.S. Senate, Laphonza will bring an important perspective to the upper house at a time when the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack. We look forward to welcoming Laphonza as the 59th member of the CBC and to continuing our work on behalf of the American people.”
Higher Heights, a PAC committed to electing more progressive Black women, said Butler’s appointment comes at a pivotal time when “a Black woman’s voice is needed more than ever in this legislative body.”
“Voices such as Butler’s are needed in the halls of Congress to advance progress on the critical issues that voters are demanding action on,” the PAC said in a statement. “We remain steadfast in our commitment to uplift Black women at all levels of government and look forward to seeing all that she accomplishes during her time as a Senator.”
Activism and politics
Butler has straddled the world of politics and activism since she began her career.
A graduate of Jackson State University, Butler grew up in Magnolia, Miss. When she was 16, her father died from a terminal illness. That experience left a profound impact on Butler, who would eventually enter the world of public service.
In 2019, Butler told KQED public radio that watching her mother take care of her father as she worked multiple jobs to support the family is what spurred her career.
“My life was really lived through the eyes of a caregiver,” Butler said at the time. “My mother’s story really was the precursor to my professional career.”
For 20 years, Butler worked in the labor movement. At just 30 years old, she was elected to serve as president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 2015, one of the biggest unions in California and the country’s largest home-care workers union. She was also SEIU international vice president and president of SEIU California’s state council.
Butler also served as the director of the Board of Governors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve System. In 2018, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) appointed her to the University of California Board of Regents.
But her work has also seen her serve as a board member for the National Children’s Defense Fund and BlackPAC. Former President Obama even named Butler a “Champion for Change.”
A veteran of Democratic politics
Though much of her career was spent in activism, Butler has also played an influential role in Democratic politics behind the scenes.
For the last two years, Butler has served as the president of EMILYs List, a group that works to elect Democratic pro-choice women.
Butler was the first woman of color to serve in the position.
After her appointment to the Senate, Butler said “the truly bittersweet part” was leaving EMILYs List, though she added she is “proud” of the work they have accomplished.
“For women and girls, for workers and unions, for struggling parents waiting for our leaders to bring opportunity back to their homes, for all of California, I’m ready to serve,” she said.
But her time in politics has also seen her serve as a key adviser for political campaigns, including Hillary Clinton’s and Harris’s.
The relationship between Butler and Harris has been a friendly one, according to USA TODAY.
“I would always call her for advice. She would always call me for advice,” Butler told USA TODAY in 2022.
And she and Harris worked together, too. Butler said she and Harris collaborated to make sure that background checks would be provided equitably to home-care workers, who are predominantly women and people of color. She has also praised Harris’s work on the Black maternal health crisis.
Newsom touted Butler’s work — and her ties with Harris — when he appointed her over the weekend.
“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.”
What’s next for her
Butler currently lives in Maryland with her wife and their daughter, but Newsom’s office has said she re-registered to vote in California, according to CNN.
Butler will be sworn in by Harris on Wednesday, and though her position is temporary, she could run for a full term.
But she would join a crowded field of hopefuls. Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Lee have all been campaigning for Feinstein’s seat since February, when Feinstein announced she would not seek another term.
All have formidable backgrounds, with Schiff also having the support of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Lee has also received support from the Congressional Black Caucus, for which she was a former chairwoman.
Lee congratulated Butler, according to The Associated Press, but said she remains “singularly focused on winning” her Senate campaign.
Democrat Lexi Reese, a tech executive, and Republican lawyer Eric Early have also been campaigning for the seat. Primaries will be held in March.