Making history, Gavin Newsom names Laphonza Butler to US Senate

Laphonza Butler speaks during an event in Washington, Friday, June 23, 2023.
Laphonza Butler speaks during an event in Washington, Friday, June 23, 2023.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh

California Gov. Gavin Newsom is appointing out lesbian EMILY’s List president Laphonza Butler to replace the late Dianne Feinstein in the US Senate, he announced on Oct. 1. Butler will become the first out lesbian Black woman to serve in either house of Congress and the first lesbian of color in the Senate.

“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,” Newsom said in a written statement announcing the appointment. “Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington, DC.”

The appointment came just days after Feinstein died on Sept. 29 at the age of 90. Feinstein occupied her seat in the Senate for three decades.

“I’m honored to accept Gov. Gavin Newsom’s nomination to be US Senator for a state I have made my home and honored by his trust in me to serve the people of California and this great nation,” Butler said in a tweet on Oct. 2. “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. I am ready to serve.”

Butler has led EMILY’s List — a political action committee working to elect pro-choice Democratic women to public office — since 2021. Earlier in her career, Butler was a union organizer and later went on to become the president of California SEIU State Council. Beginning in 2018, she was a partner at SCRB Strategies, where she was an advisor for Uber and helped Kamala Harris in her 2020 presidential campaign. Butler subsequently worked for Airbnb on North American campaigns before joining EMILY’s List.

Butler, who has a daughter, Nylah, with her wife, Neneki, will finish the remainder of Feinstein’s six-year term, which concludes in January of 2025.

Butler will join Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona as the only out lawmakers in the upper chamber. In 2020, Ritchie Torres of the Bronx became the first out gay Afro-Latinx member of Congress, while Mondaire Jones — who was ousted after just one term — became the first out gay Black member of Congress.

The appointment of Laphonza Butler to the United States Senate is a milestone in the fight for justice and liberation,” Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson said in a written statement. “The first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress, Laphonza will bring a compelling voice for abortion rights, the labor movement and civil rights to Congress.”

David Johns, the executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, said his organization is “elated to celebrate the groundbreaking appointment” of Butler to the US Senate.

“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 (SGL) community in our nation’s capital,” Johns said in a written statement. “Butler’s appointment as California’s first openly LGBTQ+ United States Senator is an extraordinary milestone. Her journey from being a trailblazing labor organizer to becoming the first Black same-gender loving person to openly serve in Congress in American history is a testament to her unwavering dedication to justice, equality, and the progress of our nation.

Butler’s appointment also drew praise from Anise Parker, president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund, which works to elect queer people to office.

“Laphonza is a champion for building a more inclusive and representative government and will certainly be a champion for women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people in the U.S senate,” Parker said in a written statement. “Today she shatters a rainbow ceiling in becoming the first out Black LGBTQ+ U.S. senator and she will serve knowing her presence and impact will be felt in countless ways. The U.S. senate is our most prestigious legislative body, but also one where change is slow. Laphonza’s appointment today is an exception to that rule, being a big step forward in our push for a more representative government.”

Butler is already facing competition from California leaders who have been clamoring for the seat since Feinstein announced she was not seeking re-election. California Congressmembers Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff have all announced candidacies for Senate.