Butler sworn in as US senator

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Tuesday October 3, 2023
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Senator Laphonza Butler takes the oath of office, which was administered by Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday, October 3. Photo: Screengrab
Senator Laphonza Butler takes the oath of office, which was administered by Vice President Kamala Harris Tuesday, October 3. Photo: Screengrab

Laphonza Butler was sworn in Tuesday as California's new senator, succeeding Dianne Feinstein, who died last week. Butler, a lesbian, becomes the Senate's first Black lesbian member and only the third Black woman to ever sit in the chamber.

Vice President Kamala Harris, for whom Butler once worked as a senior adviser, administered the oath of office. Harris herself had served as California's junior senator before resigning to become vice president.

"I will," Butler replied after Harris read the oath of office. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Senator Alex Padilla (D-California) stood behind Butler as she was sworn in on the Senate floor.

After entering the Senate, Harris, who presides as president of the body, referenced the certificate of appointment for Butler due to the "unexpected ... unexpired and unexpected" passing of Feinstein.

Schumer made brief remarks after the swearing in, hailing Butler's appointment. "I can't help but think how proud senator Feinstein would be," he said, "now that her seat is in good hands."

Schumer also noted how Butler brings more diversity to the Senate.

"This is a proud moment for all of us," he said. "We're ready to work."

In a post on X with a photo of himself and his new colleague inside the Capitol building, Padilla wrote, "Senator Butler has never backed down from a tough fight on behalf of working people. I'm honored to serve alongside my friend and champion for Californians."

It's been a whirlwind 48 hours for Butler, 44, who was appointed to the position Sunday night by Governor Gavin Newsom. Feinstein, California's longest-serving senator, died September 29 at her home in Washington, D.C. at the age of 90. She had been in poor health in recent months after suffering a severe case of shingles earlier this year.

Butler, who lives in Maryland but also owns a home in California, stepped down from leading Emily's List, the organization that works to elect Democratic pro-choice women to public office. She's a former labor leader and advocate for women and working people, according to a statement from Newsom's office. Newsom said that Butler would re-register to vote in California before she was sworn in, satisfying residency requirements.

Butler joins lesbian Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) and bisexual Senator Kyrsten Sinema (I-Arizona) as the three out members of the upper house of Congress.

"I have no doubt that Laphonza will carry on Senator Feinstein's legacy, and as the first Black LGBTQ+ person to serve in the Senate, I am thrilled to welcome another LGBTQ+ woman to the Senate!" wrote Baldwin in an October 2 post on X.

Newsom issued a statement about Butler Sunday.

"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 stated. "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."

Butler has not said whether she will run for a full six-year term and is not expected to do so this week amid the ceremonies being held in San Francisco to mourn the passing of Feinstein and honor her legacy. The public is invited Wednesday to view her lying in state at San Francisco City Hall, and a memorial service will be held outside the building at 1 p.m. Thursday.

Feinstein had announced in February that she would not seek reelection next year. Currently, three California Democratic congressmembers — Adam Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine, and Barbara Lee of Oakland — are the leading candidates in the race. Lee is the only Black candidate, and her supporters had lobbied Newsom to appoint her to Feinstein's seat.

Butler will appear on the March 2024 primary ballot as a special election to complete Feinstein's term, with the top two vote-getters of that contest advancing to the November ballot where the winner will serve through the end of the year. She has until December 8 to decide if she wants to seek a full term and appear on the March primary ballot for that race with the trio of Democratic congressmembers. The top two vote-getters of that race will also advance to the November ballot, with the winner elected to a term ending in 2030.

Prior to joining Emily's List, Butler ran political campaigns and led strategy efforts for numerous companies, organizations, and elected leaders — including for Harris and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. For more than a decade, she served as the president of the largest labor union in California — Service Employees International Union Local 2015 — a union representing more than 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers throughout the state, according to Newsom's announcement.

Butler served on the UC Board of Regents from 2018 to 2021.

Senator Alex Padilla, left, greeted his new colleague, Senator Laphonza Butler, in the Capitol Tuesday. Photo: From Padilla's X account  

Equality California, the statewide LGBTQ civil rights organization, praised the selection.

"Laphonza Butler is eminently qualified to represent California well in the United States Senate and we are thrilled to congratulate her," stated Tony Hoang, a gay man. "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. We look forward to working with Laphonza as she steps into this new role and continues her lifelong fight for our shared values of equity, freedom and justice for all."

The National Black Justice Coalition, an LGBTQ and same-gender-loving organization, also hailed the appointment.

"We are elated to celebrate the groundbreaking appointment of Laphonza Butler to the United States Senate," stated David Johns, NBJC's executive director. "This historic decision not only shatters glass ceilings but also underscores the importance of continued progress in expanding representation for the Black and LGBTQ+/same-gender loving community in our nation's capital.

"Butler's appointment as California's first openly LGBTQ+ United States senator is an extraordinary milestone," Johns added.

Gay Congressmember Mark Takano (D-Riverside), the first out member of Congress from California and the first LGBTQ person of color elected to Congress, stated that he was excited by Butler's appointment.

"For the first time in our nation's history, queer people of color have representation in both chambers of Congress," Takano stated. "As the first out person of color to serve in Congress, I am thrilled that Californians and all queer people of color have in Laphonza Butler a leader that can speak and legislate to the experiences of our community.

"Laphonza Butler's appointment to complete the term of Senator Feinstein has cemented this seat for trailblazers and history makers," he added. "I look forward to working with her to solve the challenges facing California and our country."

Lesbian state Senate President pro Tempore Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) called Butler "an excellent choice."

"As someone who has effectively fought for the rights of women and working people throughout her career, Laphonza Butler is an outstanding choice to serve California in the U.S. Senate," Atkins stated. "I am grateful to Laphonza — an incredible leader and friend — for stepping up and agreeing to take on this important role."

Newsom had previously promised to appoint a Black woman to the Senate should a vacancy occur. After Harris stepped down in 2021 to become vice president, Newsom named Alex Padilla (D), a Latino man, to the seat.

Faced with questions this year about the possibility of filling Feinstein's seat, Newsom said he would not appoint one of the candidates running to succeed her, saying he didn't want to interfere in the Senate campaign and that he would appoint a caretaker if the need arose. That angered Lee, who is Black, and many of her supporters, who felt that she should have been named to the Senate if a vacancy arose. After Feinstein's death, that became a reality.

Lee currently trails Schiff and Porter in polls and in fundraising, according to recent reports.

On Sunday, just hours before he named Butler to the seat, it was reported that Newsom had backtracked from his caretaker comment and that there were no preconditions on the person committing not to run. (An appointee could run anyway, as there's nothing to stop them from seeking election.)

Monday, Newsom told reporters he had not spoken to Butler about her running for the seat.

"I wouldn't have appointed someone that I didn't respect and admire and I couldn't back up and vouch for," he said, adding of the Golden State's new senator, "In some ways I can't even make all of this up if I had to literally design from the mind of imagination — put pen to paper — someone I would like, including the time of life. She's just 44 years old."

Butler received a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Jackson State University. Butler is married to her wife, Neneki, and together they have a daughter, Nylah.

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