By John Casey
California (Advocate.com) — Filling the shoes of the late U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California is no easy task. Feinstein repeatedly made history and broke ground as a woman lawmaker. If there ever was a glass-ceiling breaker, it was Feinstein. It makes sense that another history-making woman should fill her seat after she died last month at the age of 90. And that’s what California Gov. Gavin Newsom decided to do when he tapped Democratic strategist and EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler as the state’s next U.S. senator, finishing Feinstein’s term.
Butler becomes only the third Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, following in the footsteps of Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and now-Vice President Kamala Harris of California.
he is also the first out queer Black woman to serve in Congress. At 44, she represents a new look and new generation in an often staid legislative body that has always been predominantly middle-aged to older straight white men.
Butler tells The Advocate, in one of her first interviews since becoming senator, that the decision to take Newsom up on his offer came after some soul searching.
“I thought about what was being asked of me and our country at this moment, and I thought about all of the women that I had worked with as the president of EMILY’s List,” she says. “Those who raised their hand, said yes, and decided to run. Here, I have the opportunity to do the thing that I’ve been asking from so many women across the country.”
Meet California’s newest senator To say that Butler is accomplished would be an understatement. Newsom’s choice of Butler is looking more and more like a master stroke. Talk about Butler running to continue serving in the Senate or perhaps for governor is already beginning to make headlines.
Butler and her wife, Neneki Lee, met while both worked at the Service Employees International Union, one of the leading unions in the country. Butler held various leadership positions, including the presidency of SEIU Local 2015, which is the largest union in California, representing over 325,000 health care workers, including hospital, home care, and nursing home employees as well as public service workers. As a labor leader in California, she successfully lobbied for legislation to raise the state’s minimum wage and make paid time off available to caregivers. Lee is still employed at SEIU. The couple have an 8-year-old daughter, Nylah. Butler has had a home in California since 2011 and has voted in all the state’s elections since then.
Butler brings to the Senate intersecting identities as a Black queer woman, an abortion rights activist, and a labor organizer.
“I’ve had many experiences and hold many identities, and I’ve done a lot of work in all these areas,” Butler said. “All of those things have helped to shape how I show up in the world — knowing that I am a Black queer woman who comes from the labor movement, who has dedicated her life to economic empowerment for workers and for women. And being a fighter for our fundamental freedoms.”
Butler added, “I think that this new opportunity as a senator is about bringing the voices of those who have been left behind and whose voices have not been heard front and center. And being able to make that happen is a real point of pride and opportunity. I am dedicated to being the senator for all of California. And I think the fullness of my representation is an example of how I can do that.”
LGBTQ+ people in Congress The newly minted senator says that representation matters, especially in today’s politics.
“And so I think queer people should be running for office, particularly as we see the attacks on our fundamental rights directed toward our community,” Butler says.
Butler explains that it’s up to LGBTQ+ voters to be able to bring the voices of our community into the halls of power. “More of our own voices can be powerful,” she said. “For example, I think Sen. Tammy Baldwin has been an absolute demonstration of that.”
There’s no question that her predecessor, Feinstein, was a true representative of California for so many years. Are those shoes, to Butler, impossible to fill?
“They are definitely impossible shoes to fill,” she’s quick to say. “It’s a huge responsibility following behind an icon that paved the way for women in elected office in so many ways…I will always keep her legacy in mind and lead from a place of inclusion and a place of getting things done, and lead with a love for our country. It’s so important to try to find solutions that can move our country forward. Having this seat is an immense responsibility and one that I take very, very seriously, and I’m really proud to be here.”
What’s next for Sen. Butler Over 30 years, Feinstein left a long list of legislative accomplishments. Butler now sets her eyes on what she’ll be prioritizing while in the seat for the next year — at least.
“There are some big issues in front of the Senate, and in front of the country in this moment. Unfortunately, our counterparts in the House are not quite ready to join us in leading what we should be focusing on as a body,” she said.
Butler said that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has made it abundantly clear that Congress must continue to fight for resources for Ukraine and make sure that the United States is prepared to continue to stand with one of our strongest allies, Israel.
Further, we have in front of us, potentially, an imminent government shutdown, and so there are huge things that are in front of the Senate as a body,” she said.
Butler added, “Personally, my life has been about the empowerment of workers and women, and I want to use this platform to continue what has been my life’s journey and mission: being an advocate on behalf of women and girls and fighting for our fundamental freedoms. Also, engaging young people in a civic process and conversation about preserving democracy for future generations. So those are big buckets but what people can expect from me.”
From Mississippi to MIT Butler was born in Magnolia, Miss., in 1979 and has had an interest in politics that can be traced back to her time at Jackson State University, a leading historically Black institution, where she earned a bachelor of arts in political science. She served three years on the University of California Board of Regents and is now a regent emerita. She has been a board member for the Children’s Defense Fund, BlackPAC, and the Bay Area Economic Council Institute. She served as a fellow at the MIT Community Innovations Lab and was director for the board of governors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve.
Most recently, Butler was president of EMILY’s List, the preeminent national resource dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights. She also worked on Harris’s presidential campaign.
Her labor background could come in handy in the current divided Congress. Butler says she hopes her negotiating skills can help.
“Finding compromise and working towards common goals are the things that I that I want to continue to be a part of, and making a real difference in getting important work done,” she said.
As a budding politician whose background is in activism and nonprofits, Butler said that growing up she admired former New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Marian Wright Edelman, a legendary activist for civil rights and children’s rights, and the founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund.
“They both deeply inspired me because they were leaders who brought communities together and really gave a voice for those who needed it the most,” Butler says.
Understanding identity She also takes inspiration from the LGBTQ+ community.
“I think that being a queer person from this community and having that support demonstrates our strength. When our lives, our families, and our authenticity are being questioned or attacked, that provides us an opportunity to stand up and support the work of someone who is working to be a champion. It takes all of us to make a difference,” Butler said.
Butler was in high school when she started to come to terms with her sexuality.
“I just started talking and having conversations with my mom. She has just been an absolute rock in my life and always encouraged me to be who I am, whoever that might be. She always supported my decisions and how I wanted to show up in the world. Having her love was so important to me,” she said.
And speaking of showing up, will Butler show up in the Democratic primary next year for the seat she holds now or, as has been rumored, for the governor’s seat in 2026?
“First things first: I have a lot of work in front of me at the moment, and beyond that, I have to think about the commitments that I have made in other parts of my life, to myself and to others,” she says. “There’s so much that must be considered when someone is deciding to run for office. I have a young child, the divisive madness and attacks, the partisanship.”
Because of all that, Butler emphasizes that she doesn’t want to make a hasty decision. “I never planned to run for office before this moment, and I have to be really thoughtful about what’s ahead.”
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