Feature image Laphonza Butler with her daughter, Nylah and her partner, Neneki Lee via EMILY’s List. Laphonza Butler is set to become the first Black lesbian to serve as a U.S. Senator.
In news first reported by Politico, California Governor Gavin Newsom has picked Laphonza Butler to fill the Senate seat once held by Dianne Feinstein. Once appointed, Butler will be the only black woman and the third LGBT woman serving in the Senate — alongside Sens. Tammy Baldwin and Kyrsten Sinema — as well as the first ever out black lesbian to serve in Congress.
Governor @GavinNewsom has selected Laphonza Butler to complete Senator Feinstein’s term.
A trusted adviser to @VP Harris and leader of the nation’s largest organization dedicated to electing women, Butler will make history as the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress. pic.twitter.com/NTPcK2Wtve
— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) October 2, 2023
“Laphonza Butler is eminently qualified to represent California well in the United States Senate and we are thrilled to congratulate her,” Equality California Executive Director Tony Hoang said in a statement. “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.”
The appointment, which Newsom confirmed late Sunday night and will announce later today, comes just days after Feinstein’s death but a slim Democratic majority in the Senate necessitated that Newsom move quickly. Butler could be seated as early as Tuesday, allowing consideration of Democratic priorities — like keeping the government open or aid for Ukraine — and judicial nominations to continue, unabated.
“As we mourn the enormous loss of Sen. Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault,” Newsom said. “Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people… I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”
Since 2021, Butler has served as the president of the DC-based EMILY’s List, a national political organization dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women to political office. But Butler’s California ties run deep: she built a career in labor organizing with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), eventually becoming president of SEIU Local 2015, the largest union in the state. She was also a partner at SCRB Strategies (now Bearstar Strategies), a political consulting firm with ties to Gov. Newsom. Butler is a longtime supporter of Vice President Kamala Harris and served as a senior advisor on her presidential campaign.
The appointment could ease some reservations about Newsom’s recent legislative vetoes. The governor had recently drawn the ire of LGBT organizations in California over his veto of AB-957, a bill which would have added “a parent’s affirmation of the child’s gender identity or gender expression” to one of the many considerations a judge makes before deciding on custody. Likewise, he’d run afoul of labor unions with vetoes of Senate Bills 686 and 799 which would have extended workplace protections to domestic workers and paid striking workers California unemployment benefits after two weeks, respectively.
But the tenure of the first out black lesbian in Congress may be a short one.
With Butler’s selection, Newsom fulfills a promise he made back in 2021 to appoint a black woman to fill Feinstein’s seat, if and when it became available. But, as recently as last month, Newsom’s also expressed his desire that the appointment be an interim one. The race to replace Feinstein had already begun, in earnest, after she announced her retirement in February, and Newsom wasn’t interested in interfering. But many black Democratic leaders didn’t relish the prospect of a black woman as caretaker and lambasted Newsom’s pronouncement. On the eve of Butler’s appointment, the governor’s office seemingly walked that idea back.
“If that person decides she wants to seek a full term in 2024, then she is free to do so. There is absolutely no litmus test, no promise,” Newsom spokesman Anthony York told the LA Times.
But even if Butler’s technically allowed to seek a full term in 2024, I’m hard-pressed to imagine she could. Reps. Katie Porter, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee are already locked in a competitive race to become Feinstein’s permanent successor, with the primary set for March 5, 2024. To launch a statewide campaign in California, in time to compete in that March primary, with no existing infrastructure or war chest seems improbable even for someone with Butler’s bonafides. Instead, Butler will serve until a replacement can be determined by the voters in a special election that’ll run concurrently with the existing 2024 race. Ultimately, Butler is likely to only serve 14 months in the United States Senate.
Still, that’s 14 months of the Democratic Party’s most stalwart constituency having a voice in the debate over the nation’s most important issues. That’s 14 months of having another prominent queer voice voting on the judges who stand between our community and calamity far too often. That’s 14 months of history being made.
The first out black lesbian ever to serve in Congress. It’s not everything but it’s damned sure something worth celebrating.