Laphonza Butler sworn in as California’s newest U.S. senator
Laphonza Butler is California’s newest senator, following a historic swearing-in ceremony with Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday afternoon in the U.S. Capitol.
Flanked by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), Butler raised her right hand to take the oath of office.
The Senate chamber erupted in applause as Butler signed her name. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) shook Butler’s hand as she walked off the Senate floor.
“I can’t help but think how proud Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein would be, seeing someone as brilliant, as accomplished, as history-making as Laphonza Butler take her place,” Schumer said.
President Biden called Butler on Tuesday afternoon to congratulate her on her appointment, White House officials said.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped Butler on Sunday to replace the late Sen. Feinstein, fulfilling his promise to name a Black woman to the Senate. The appointment ensures that Democrats keep their one-seat majority in the upper chamber.
Laphonza Butler, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointee to the U.S. Senate, says she wants to carry the baton of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
Butler, 44, has never served as a public official but has worked behind the scenes for Democrats and their causes for decades.
She worked for Service Employees International Union Local 2015 for more than a decade, and in 2018 was appointed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown as a UC regent. She left the role in 2021, the same year she became president of Emily’s List, a political action committee that helps elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Butler was also an advisor to Harris’ 2020 presidential bid and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 bid for the White House. She also recently served as Airbnb’s public policy and campaigns director.
She becomes the first Black woman in the chamber since Harris left to become vice president in 2021. Newsom appointed California’s then-Secretary of State Padilla to fill Harris’ seat, and vowed his next Senate appointment would be a Black woman.
Butler is the nation’s 12th Black senator and its third Black female senator. She is also the first out gay person of color to serve in the Senate, and the first out LGBTQ+ person to represent California in the chamber.
Some Californians wanted Newsom to pick a different Black woman for the role.
After Feinstein’s death, advocates and lawmakers pressed the governor to name Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) as the state’s next senator. The Oakland congresswoman is the only prominent Black woman running in the 2024 race for Feinstein’s former seat. September polling indicates Lee is trailing two white fellow Democrats in the race: Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank and Katie Porter of Irvine.
Newsom last month sidestepped pressure to name Lee, saying the role would be temporary. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off,” he said in September. “That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Shortly before the Sunday announcement, however, Newsom clarified his stipulation, saying that the new senator could be a candidate, fueling speculation that Butler might throw her hat into the ring to remain in the seat.
Butler told The Times on Monday that she is undecided on joining the hotly contested Senate race.
“I have no idea. I genuinely don’t know,” Butler said in her first interview since her appointment. “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.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s health problems have raised questions about whom Gov. Gavin Newsom would appoint to replace her if the 90-year-old can’t complete her term.
When asked Tuesday by reporters about a potential Butler run, Lee replied, “That’s her decision.”
In a tweet, Lee said that she wished Butler well and looks “forward to working closely with her to deliver for the Golden State.”
Immediately after swearing in as senator, Butler took another oath: joining the Congressional Black Caucus. Caucus Chairman Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.) administered the oath while Lee watched smiling.
Times staff writers Taryn Luna and Hannah Wiley contributed to this report.
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