California's incoming senator, Laphonza Butler, describes her whirlwind trip into history

Laphonza Butler in Washington, DC.
Emily's List President Laphonza Butler addresses a Biden-Harris campaign rally on the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs vs. Jackson decision, which struck down a federal right to abortion. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
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Laphonza Butler was in Colorado for a work trip late Saturday when she spoke with Gov. Gavin Newsom's team for the first time about filling the U.S. Senate vacancy left by the death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

“I had not talked to anyone: Not the governor, not the governor’s team,” Butler said in an interview with The Times. “I was unaware that my name was even seriously being considered.

“And it’s been a sort of whirlwind ever since.”

Read more: Newsom taps Laphonza Butler for Feinstein's Senate seat

Butler spoke with The Times on Monday in her first interview since her appointment by the governor, a decision that will catapult her into the history books as the only Black woman currently in the Senate and the first LGBTQ+ senator from California.

She didn’t have an answer to the top question on the minds of political observers across the nation — especially the candidates in the 2024 California Senate race. Will she run for the seat next year or simply serve as a caretaker of the position until November?

“I have no idea. I genuinely don’t know,” Butler said. “I want to be focused on honoring the legacy of Sen. Feinstein. I want to devote my time and energy to serving the people of California. And I want to carry her baton with the honor that it deserves and so I genuinely have no idea.”

Butler will be sworn into office on Tuesday by Vice President Kamala Harris, her close friend and ally. If she chooses to run for the Senate seat in the 2024 election, her ballot designation, familiarity with a long list of donors and labor background could make her a formidable candidate.

Despite Newsom previously saying he would appoint an “interim” replacement candidate until November, Butler said the governor didn’t ask her if she would run during their conversations about the appointment.

“He said to me that whoever he appointed, he intended to make it clear that he would expect them to do whatever they wanted to do regarding that,” Butler said.

Read more: Will she run or won't she? Laphonza Butler's appointment could scramble California Senate race

Known for her directness, the 44-year-old advocate for women’s reproductive rights said she didn’t offer an automatic "yes" when Newsom’s team came calling.

Running for public office was never on her “bingo card,” but as president of Emily's List, a national political organization that focuses on electing Democratic women who support abortion access, she said she’s encouraged countless women to lead when they have something to offer.

“It wasn’t an easy decision because I love my job and I love my family and I love my privacy, but I also love my country and I love my state,” Butler said. “And you know I can’t really be the leader of Emily's List and encourage other women to do something courageous for their communities and for their country and I not be willing to do the same.”

Newsom pitched her on the importance of having an experienced advocate for women representing California in Washington at a time when their rights are under attack in America.

“Everything that she’s been advocating for in the last few years meet this moment, as it relates to rights regressions, issues of civil rights, and issues of LGBTQ rights, women and girls, issues related to voting rights. She’s on the front end of all of these things,” Newsom said during a media event in San Francisco.

“This is a special person,” he said.

Butler grew up in the small town of Magnolia, Miss. Her father died when she was 16 and her mother juggled multiple jobs to make ends meet. Her mom never had stable health insurance until the passage of the Affordable Care Act, she said at an event in San Francisco last month.

“I saw my mom work every single day and sometimes three jobs in a day to make sure that me and my two brothers had an opportunity at better choices and chances,” Butler said Monday.

“I think that what I want the people of California to know is that I understand what it’s like to grow up and not feel like you’ve been seen. I understand what it’s like to experience poverty. I understand what it’s like to have our parents make choices about whether or not they’re going to pay the rent or they’re going to buy school shoes or school clothes.”

Butler said she learned about that from personal experience and her work as a labor organizer for Service Employees International Union.

Read more: From Dianne Feinstein's death to the rise of Laphonza Butler: 3 momentous days in California

She advocated nationally for nurses, janitors and hospital workers in Baltimore, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and other cities before making a name for herself in California.

She asked SEIU to allow her to step in and lead the biggest local in Los Angeles in 2009 after a Times investigation detailed corrupt financial practices by it leader.

While heading the local, she also served four years as president of SEIU California, arguably the most powerful labor force at the state Capitol.

Before joining Emily’s List, she was a partner in the political consulting firm run by the governor’s veteran political strategists, now known as Bearstar Strategies.

Newsom said he got to know Butler when she was a labor-rights leader peppering him with questions about how he was prepared for an aging population and long-term care in California.

“She was in the trenches of educating me on the silver tsunami, as she referred to it, the golden wave in California. Asking me what my vision was as a candidate for office as it relates to addressing the aging and graying population in California,” he said.

“There was a passion, and it distinguished her leadership. And that always marked a consciousness with me. I paid a lot more attention to Laphonza Butler after that.”

He thought of that moment, he said, when he started thinking about who to appoint.

Read more: Who is Laphonza Butler? What to know about Newsom's pick for Feinstein's Senate seat

Butler appears to be the first person in more than 60 years to enter the Senate with a background as an official in the labor movement, according to records maintained by the Senate Historical office.

In that regard, her appointment is “part of the leftward movement of Democrats in terms of ideology” in the dozen years since the end of the Great Recession, said Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin, who has written books on the history of the party and on the labor movement.

Although several Democratic senators have had very close ties to the labor movement, including some who served as lawyers for major unions, actually rising through the ranks of unions has been rarer. That’s been especially true since the number of unionized workers in the U.S. started to sharply decline in the 1970s.

“Laphonza is an organizer extraordinaire,” said former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. He said she has few peers with her "level of experience as a community activist, a labor organizer and now as a CEO of a major women’s Democratic” powerhouse.

Villaraigosa said SEIU has always had a reputation for having some of the strongest union organizers of any union in the country and that she’s at the top of that list.

“She is no shrinking violet,” he said. “She’s tough as nails and takes no prisoners and has the respect of many.”

Butler was in the mix for major policy initiatives, such as the efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 in L.A. County, and then statewide. She also was heavily involved in statewide initiatives, including union-backed measures to increase income taxes in 2012 and 2016 on the wealthiest Californians.

“I had the privilege of sitting at the table with her and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Tia Orr, executive director of SEIU California, of the fight for the $15 minimum wage. “She was able to, you know, wrangle all these different views and all these different fears of businesses leaving California and she not only passed it in California, but I think made it a reality for other states who followed behind.”

Read more: Who will replace the late Sen. Feinstein in 2024 election? Meet the potential candidates

When asked if Butler was his first choice as an appointee or whether he had asked anybody else whether they wanted the job, Newsom just said she was “the only choice.”

“She is the best choice,” the governor said. “I am proud and honored to have had so many extraordinarily qualified people that expressed interest in this job that I was able to engage in conversations, period, full stop. And I could not be more proud of Laphonza’s interest and her qualifications and her willingness to do this.”

Butler has also never served in elected office, a point some Republican critics were quick to point out.

Newsom said he wasn’t worried about that because her “deep governmental experience” and a firm understanding of how the legislative process works, both on the national and local level, makes her “next-level qualified.”

Sue Dunlap, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, has known Butler for more than a decade and described her as a unifying leader across various campaigns and social movements. She's someone who can deliver results not just for labor unions or abortion access, but also for LGBTQ+ rights and economic and racial justice issues, Dunlap said.

“I think that’s what Laphonza brings to the table, the ability to work with everybody but also to connect the dots across movements,” Dunlap said. “It’s really that cohesiveness as opposed to sort of thinking of any one of the things we’re talking about as a single issue.”

Questions have risen about Butler’s residency and the fact that she no longer lives in California. It’s unlikely to affect her appointment or a potential campaign if she decides to run, given her long history in the state. But Emily’s List edited its website to remove a reference to Butler living in Maryland.

“Out of 40 million Californians, Gavin Newsom couldn’t find a single one to represent our state?” Orange County GOP chairman Fred Whitaker said in a statement.

Butler said she moved to Maryland with her partner, Neneki Lee, and young daughter Nylah in September of 2021 and rented out her home in Los Angeles. She said she has a lease in L.A. and will live in California and travel back and forth from Washington.

Times senior editor David Lauter and Times staff writers Queenie Wong and Seema Mehta contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.