Yesterday, California Governor Gavin Newsom selected Laphonza Butler, the president of Emily’s List—a political action committee that supports Democratic pro-choice candidates—to complete the remaining term of the late Senator Dianne Feinstein, who died last week.
Butler, who currently lives in Maryland and was recently named as one of our Most Powerful Women in Washington, is expected to be sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris (for whom she was once a presidential campaign adviser) on Wednesday.
Here are five things to know about California’s soon-to-be newest senator:
She’s from a working-class family in Magnolia, Mississippi.
Butler, who is now 44, grew up as one of three children in Magnolia, Mississippi, a small town on the southern side of the state. Butler’s father, a small-business owner, died when she was 16 years old, according to Newsom’s office. As a result, her mother, who was also her father’s primary caretaker before his death, worked several different jobs—including roles as a classroom aide, a home care provider, a security guard, and a bookkeeper—to support Butler and her two siblings.
“Her sacrifice was always very clear,” said Butler, who recalled her mother working overnight shifts as a CNA, in an interview with Elle magazine. “We weren’t the family 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. What do we do to help somebody? In that way, I still think my mother’s influence carries me and propels me forward.”
She’s an HBCU grad.
Butler graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science in 2001 from Jackson State University, where several of her instructors were veterans of the civil rights movement that “instilled in her a penchant for activism and commitment to social justice,” according to The Los Angeles Times.
“What are you doing for freedom? That was always the question,” Butler told the Times. “What are you doing for freedom today?”
She has a history in California politics.
Though Butler has never held elected office before, she quickly became a fixture in California politics after moving there in 2009 to help caregivers and in-home nurses organize. At just 30 years old, she was named president of the state’s largest labor union, Service Employees International Union, and took on several legislative battles that included advocating for a higher minimum wage and increased taxes on California’s wealthiest residents.
While in California, she also worked as a partner at the political consulting firm SCRB Strategies (now rebranded as Bearstar Strategies); was a senior leader on Vice President Kamala Harris’s presidential campaign; and was a member of the University of California Board of Regents. According to The Washington Post, Butler still owns a home in California but “is expected to reregister to vote in California before being sworn in.”
She’s fulfilled many “firsts.”
Butler will be the first openly LGBTQ senator to represent California as well as the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress, according to Newsom’s office. In choosing Butler, Newsom fulfilled a 2021 pledge to name a Black woman to the Senate if Feinstein’s seat opened.
Notably, Butler was also the first woman of color and mother to lead Emily’s List, according to the organization. “What I hope my journey brings is that everyday women can see a little bit of them in me and know that anything is possible,” said Butler to Politico in 2021.
She and her wife, Neneki Lee, have a daughter named Nylah.
Butler is married to Neneki Lee, whose LinkedIn profile currently lists her as the national division director for public services at SEIU. Together, they have an 8-year-old daughter named Nylah, who Butler has credited as one of her driving forces.
“Being your mom is the greatest gift I’ve ever received in life,” wrote Butler to her daughter in an open letter on Medium, published after the leak of the Supreme Court draft to overturn Roe v. Wade. “As I grew up, I watched and learned about women who fought for voting rights, civil rights and reproductive freedom among others. Now, it is my turn to fight for your future.”
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