Laphonza Butler sworn in to vacant U.S. Senate seat

Wave Staff and Wire Reports

LOS ANGELES — Laphonza Butler was officially sworn in Oct. 3 to serve out the remainder of the late Dianne Feinstein’s term in the U.S. Senate, just two days after she was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the seat.

Butler will fill out Feinstein’s term that runs through the end of 2024. She was sworn in on the Senate floor by Vice President Kamala Harris.

Feinstein died Sept. 28 at her home in Washington, D.C., at age 90.

With her swearing in, Butler became California’s first openly LGBT U.S. senator and the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress. She is the second Black woman to represent California in the U.S. Senate, following Harris.

“I’m honored to accept [Newsom’s] nomination to be U.S. 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 wrote on X, formerly Twitter, 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 was serving as president of EMILY’s List, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to electing women who support abortion rights, but she stepped down from that role to serve in the Senate.

It was unclear if Butler plans to enter the race for a full term in the Senate. Already in the field of candidates seeking the position are U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff, Barbara Lee and Katie Porter.

Newsom had vowed to appoint a Black woman to the Senate seat if it became open. He announced Butler’s appointment Oct. 1.

“An advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people and a trusted adviser to Vice President Harris, Laphonza Butler represents the best of California, and she’ll represent us proudly in the United States Senate,” Newsom said in a statement announcing the appointment.

“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. Laphonza will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.”

Mayor Karen Bass praised Butler’s appointment.

“Laphonza Butler is an incredibly capable leader who I know will serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate on behalf of California,” Bass said in a statement. “I first met Laphonza when she took the helm of SEIU Local 2015 and I watched as she worked to grow the union into the statewide force it is today. 

“She has always been a fighter for the people and I look forward to working with her in this new capacity.”

Kellie Todd Griffin, founding convener of the California Black Women’s Collective, also praised Newsom’s choice to replace Feinstein.

 “I am always excited when a Black woman is elevated,” Griffin said. “Laphonza Butler will represent California well and will bring a perspective to the U.S. Senate that is desperately needed as a Black, LGBT, mother, organizer and labor leader.

“My goal is to lift up the voices and needs of Black women throughout state,” Griffin added. “That’s what we did three years ago when we created Keep the Seat and what we did in this case. We will keep pushing for what we believe is right regardless of the outcomes.”

Griffin was referring to pressure that was put on Newsom to appoint a Black woman to replace Harris when she became vice president. Instead, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla to that seat. Newsom pledged to appoint a Black woman if he had another Senate vacancy to fill.

Assemblyman Mike Gipson also praised Newsom for keeping his word.

“I appreciate him for standing by his word and providing a great successor amidst the passing of the honorable Senator Feinstein,” Gipson said.

County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and City Councilwoman Heather Hutt also commented on Butler’s appointment.

“I first met Laphonza more than a decade ago when she was president of SEIU 2015,” Mitchell said. “She is a once-in-a-generation leader. Newsom has made a great choice. Laphonza is grounded, capable and no stranger to taking on and winning tough fights to improve the lives of all Californians.”

Hutt spoke about Butler being the third Black woman to serve in the Senate after Harris and Carol Moseley Braun, who represented Illinois in the Senate from 1993 to 1999.  

“Because of you, Black women are again represented in [the] U.S. Senate,” Hutt said to Butler. “You are the next but not the last.”

Butler ran political campaigns for and led strategy efforts for Harris and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. For more than a decade, she served as president of Service Employees International Union Local 201, which represents more than 325,000 nursing home and home care workers in California and is the state’s largest labor union, and she held other leadership positions in the union.

Butler was the director of the Board of Governors of the Los Angeles branch of the Federal Reserve System. In 2018, she was appointed to the University of California Board of Regents by Gov. Jerry Brown, where she served until 2021. She served in various other roles, including as a board member for the National Children’s Defense Fund, BLACK PAC, and the Bay Area Economic Council Institute, and as a fellow for the MIT Community Innovators Lab. 

Butler was named a “Champion for Change” by President Barack Obama.

She received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Jackson State University.

Butler is married to her wife, Neneki, and together they have a daughter, Nylah.

California Black Media and City News Service also contributed to this story.