Laphonza Butler, president of Emily’s List and a former labor leader, is Gov. Gavin Newsom of California’s choice to fill the Senate seat of Dianne Feinstein, who died at 90 on Thursday in Washington, D.C. The selection was announced on Sunday.
Though Ms. Butler, 44, has never held elective political office, she has been a fixture in California politics for nearly 15 years as a former leader of the state’s largest labor union, as a partner at a top-flight political consulting firm, and as an adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris during her 2020 presidential bid.
Governor Newsom pledged in early 2021, after naming Alex Padilla to succeed Ms. Harris in the Senate, that if another seat were to become vacant, he would name a Black woman, a promise he kept by naming Ms. Butler.
In choosing her, the governor bypassed Representative Barbara Lee, a Democrat who has long been a leader in the state’s Black community and who is already running for the Senate seat in next year’s election. The governor said that he did not want to tip the scales in that race, which also includes Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, by appointing one of the contenders to fill the seat in the interim.
Vice President Harris is expected to swear in Ms. Butler on Tuesday at the Capitol. Here are some things to know about the newly appointed senator.
Daughter of working-class parents
Ms. Butler was born in Magnolia, Miss., and grew up in a working-class home. Her father received a diagnosis of a terminal illness and died when she was 16, and she told The New York Times in 2021 that after that, her household was supported largely by her mother, who worked, among other jobs, as a security guard, gas station cashier, home-care worker and teaching assistant.
In an interview with Elle Magazine in 2021, Ms. Butler said that her family wasn’t the type “that talked about elections or politics at the dinner table, but we were the family that talked about what it meant to be in service to others.”
Ms. Butler received a bachelor’s degree in political science and government in 2001 from Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi. Several of Ms. Butler’s college instructors were veterans of the civil rights movement, she told The Los Angeles Times, adding that they instilled in her a drive for activism and a commitment to social justice.
“What are you doing for freedom? That was always the question,” Butler said. “What are you doing for freedom today?”
Ms. Butler will be the second Black woman to represent California in the Senate, after Ms. Harris, and will be the first openly L.G.B.T.Q. senator from the state.
Rise as a labor organizer
Ms. Butler rose to political prominence in California through labor activism, and led the union representing 325,000 workers in nursing homes and home-based care for more than a decade, according to Governor Newsom’s office. During her time as president of Local 2015 of the Service Employees International Union, she pushed for policies that included raising the state minimum wage to $15 and increasing income tax rates paid by the state’s wealthiest residents.
Ms. Butler told The Los Angeles Times in 2015 that labor unions were “building collective power in service of our broader society.”
“We have to figure out how to build the broadest possible movement on behalf of solving big problems,” Ms. Butler said in the interview. “We have a climate crisis. The criminal justice system is broken. We have poverty. No longer are our problems bilateral, between one union and one factory. It’s going to take the collective voice to solve those problems.”
Ms. Butler made connections at the highest levels of California government during her time at the union. She was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents in 2018 by Gov. Jerry Brown and served until 2021.
In 2019, she left the union to become a partner at SCRB Strategies, a top political consultancy in California that is now known as Bearstar Strategies. The firm advises Governor Newsom and Vice President Harris. The firm also is working for Mr. Schiff in his 2024 race for the Senate.
While Ms. Butler was at SCRB Strategies, she was retained by the ride-share giant Uber in 2019 as the company battled labor unions over legislation governing pay and work conditions for drivers, The Los Angeles Times reported.
In September 2020, Ms. Butler was named the director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb, the online home-sharing platform, where she worked for about a year.
In 2021, Ms. Butler became the first Black woman to take the helm at Emily’s List, the fund-raising organization dedicated to electing female candidates and supporters of reproductive rights. An endorsement from Emily’s List has long been one of the most sought-after for Democratic women.
Ms. Butler told NPR that she would work to ensure that Emily’s List supported a more diverse range of candidates.
In 2022, Ms. Butler told Capital B News that she hoped that her presence at the organization “is a source of inspiration for a candidate that is thinking to herself that maybe she doesn’t belong, that maybe her journey isn’t what it takes to be an elected official,” adding that “presence and representation matters and it doesn’t go out of style.”
Focus on abortion rights
After the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, Ms. Butler released a statement saying the decision would have “sweeping consequences for millions of Americans” and that it had moved the country backward.
“Today is a tragic day,” she said. “But this decision will not end the debate on this issue. We will take this fight to the ballot box. We are the majority in this country and we will fight back.”
Ms. Butler has said that abortion was a “winning issue” for Democrats in 2022, but that in order to persuade voters, the messaging needed to be more holistic. She has emphasized the importance of voting rights when it comes to protecting access to reproductive care.
“If we can’t elect the people who represent our values, then they can’t govern based on our values,” she told The 19th last year.
In announcing Ms. Butler’s appointment on Sunday, Governor Newsom said that “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.”
Ms. Butler, he said, “will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington, D.C.”
Ms. Butler said in a social media post on Monday that she was “honored” to accept the appointment.
“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.”
2024 is an open question
Ms. Butler will serve until California voters elect a successor to Ms. Feinstein in November 2024. She could run in that election herself, but has not yet indicated whether she would do so.
Mr. Newsom’s chief spokesman, Anthony York, said on Sunday that the governor did not require Ms. Butler to promise to stay out of the 2024 race. That marked a shift from the governor’s position last month, when the vacancy was still a hypothetical possibility and he described a potential appointment as an “interim” role, implying that he would not appoint someone who would try to retain the seat.
If she were to run, Ms. Butler would not have much time to build a campaign team and raise money before the California primary on March 5. She would start with the advantage of a brief incumbency, but without the funds needed to run a statewide campaign in California, the nation’s most populous state.
The most recent campaign contribution reports for the race showed that Mr. Schiff had $30 million on hand, Ms. Porter had $10.4 million and Ms. Lee had $1.4 million.
Ms. Butler moved to the Washington, D.C., area from California when she became president of Emily’s List in 2021; she will now re-register as a voter in California, where she still owns a home, according to Mr. Newsom’s administration. Ms. Butler and her wife, Neneki, have a school-aged daughter.
The Congressional Black Caucus, which had previously urged Mr. Newsom to appoint Ms. Lee, issued a statement on Monday celebrating Ms. Butler as the first lesbian Black woman in 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 statement said. “Laphonza will bring an important perspective to the upper house at a time when the rights of women and the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community are under attack.”
Shawn Hubler and Kayla Guo contributed reporting.