When Laphonza Butler announced in October that she’d depart her leadership post in California’s largest labor union, a role she held for nearly a decade, the news set off a whirl of speculation among the state’s politicos about what she’d do next.
An administration post with Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom? A stint as national president of Service Employees International Union, where she’s worked in various roles since 2001? A consensus pick to lead the California Democratic Party, in the wake of Chairman Eric Bauman’s recent resignation amid misconduct allegations?
Instead, Butler is making the leap from advocate to operative, joining forces with some of the state’s highest-profile consultants in a move that could have implications for California and national politics.
Butler will be a partner in the newly rechristened firm SCRB Strategies, along with veteran strategists Ace Smith, Sean Clegg and Juan Rodriguez. Their clients include Newsom, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a frequent subject of speculation in her own right about 2020 presidential ambitions.
The firm, which has worked with the senator since her days as San Francisco district attorney, is expected to play a central role in Harris’ presidential bid, should she decide to run. That means Butler, a political ally of Harris since her first campaign for attorney general, could soon be in the thick of 2020 jockeying.
Harris has played coy about her aspirations for higher office, telling MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski recently that she’d make a decision over the holidays. In an interview with The Times, she described Butler as “whip smart,” a sentiment echoed by a soon-to-be colleague.
“Laphonza is one of the national talents of a generation,” Clegg said. “She's almost universally respected and trusted as somebody who is motivated by the right things, who has a moral compass and follows it.”
Butler lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Neneki Lee, and their 4-year old daughter, Nylah. It’s a long way from where she grew up — tiny Magnolia, Miss. — as the youngest of three children. Her father, a small-business owner, was hobbled by heart disease for much of her childhood and died when Butler was 16. During his illness and afterward, her mother was largely the household’s sole provider, working as a classroom aide, a home care provider, a security guard and a bookkeeper, among other things, to keep the family afloat.
In college at Jackson State University, Butler studied under civil rights organizers. Her dorm building still had bullet holes in its facade from a 1970 state police shooting that left two students dead.
“That was my socialization for doing the right thing,” said Butler, 39.
She was a national organizer for SEIU before moving to California in 2009, after she asked the union’s leaders to let her lead a local representing home healthcare workers. The local, the biggest in Los Angeles, had been stung by controversy after a Times investigation detailed corrupt financial practices by its leaders.
The in-home care workers “remind me so much of my mom,” Butler said. “Their kids remind me so much of me.”
As leader of the home care workers local and in a four-year stint as president of SEIU California, 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.
Dustin Corcoran, chief executive of the California Medical Assn., said he witnessed Butler’s political acumen while working with her on initiatives including the 2016 effort to boost the state’s tobacco tax.
“She can put competing organizations in a room and find a way to get everybody a win,” he said. “Watching her in a political meeting was like watching Neo in ‘The Matrix.’ You could tell she saw the world differently than everybody else.”
She sparred with Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown over the future of the state In-Home Supportive Services program, which enables low-income elderly and disabled people to receive home care. Now, with IHSS being framed less as a welfare program beset by fraud — as it was portrayed in the Schwarzenegger years — and more as a healthcare program, with a new crop of labor leaders eager to take the reins, Butler said the time felt right to leave SEIU.
State Sen. Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) said she wasn’t surprised when her friend decided to leave her job in search of something that could further “test her chops.”
Mitchell said she gave Butler some hip-hop inflected counsel.
“You're a baller, shot caller,’” Mitchell recalled telling her. “You're very young. I don't want it to be a situation where you peaked early. How do you strategically position yourself so you continue to be a major influencer?”
Butler landed on joining the consulting firm, formerly known as SCN, which has deep ties to Harris.
“Can you imagine if we have a President Kamala Harris, what that would mean for Laphonza Butler?” Mitchell asked.
Butler and Harris share a years-long history. They met in 2010 when Harris was mounting an uphill campaign for California attorney general. Butler was impressed, but her SEIU colleagues had long-standing relationships with the other Democrats running in the primary. Butler helped negotiate a rare triple endorsement by the union in the primary — Harris was one of the candidates it backed. She won the primary and eked out a narrow win against Republican Steve Cooley, then the district attorney of Los Angeles County.
“Early in that race, there were a lot of naysayers who didn't think I could get elected,” Harris said. “Laphonza stuck with me from the beginning through the end.”
Butler and her colleagues aren’t the only ones primed for Harris’ possible presidential run. Dan Newman, a former partner in SCN, along with longtime Harris consultant Brian Brokaw, are in discussions to run an independent super PAC to bolster her bid, according to a source with knowledge of the conversation.
Butler, for her part, said she plans to stay focused on California. She’ll remain a University of California regent, a job she was appointed to by Brown in August for a 12-year term. She said she’d like to stay engaged on criminal justice and tax reform issues in the state.
But that work, too, can ultimately have national implications, she said.
“We all say, ‘As California goes, so goes the nation,’” Butler said, adding that politics elsewhere in the country can similarly affect the Golden State. “I don’t know if there’s a real distinction beyond borders on a map.”