The death of Dianne Feinstein, one of America’s longest serving, most trailblazing female politicians, has set off a race to fill her seat in the U.S. Senate. While it’s not entirely clear who the long-term heir to Feinstein’s seat will be, California Governor Gavin Newsom has appointed a longtime political ally, Laphonza Butler, as an interim officeholder for the time being.
“Laphonza will carry the baton left by Sen. Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington D.C.,” said Newsom in a statement published Sunday.
Butler comes to the role via a fairly untraditional route. While Feinstein served in the Senate for some three decades and will doubtlessly be remembered for breaking important ground for women in U.S. politics, her last years were characterized by ongoing memory lapses and political gaffes. After suffering a slew of calls to resign earlier this year, Feinstein made a promise to retire from Congress at the end of her term in 2024. This announcement set off a race for her seat, with numerous political candidates announcing their intentions to run for it. Unfortunately, Feinstein died of old age before she could fulfill her promise to retire. Due to her untimely exit from office, it fell to the governor to appoint a temporary leader to fill her seat. Newsom selected Butler.
A longtime affiliate of the governor, Butler has excited some onlookers, while disappointing others. In particular, some critics have noted her lobbying activity on behalf of large tech companies as a sign that she might not be quite progressive enough for the job. Here’s a quick rundown on what Butler’s career so far might tell us about her political character.
Who is Laphonza Butler?
Newsom’s office has touted Butler’s identity as a gay Black woman as proof of her progressive bona fides. “Butler will make history as California’s first openly LGBTQ United States Senator and the first Black lesbian to openly serve in Congress in American history,”the governor’s office said upon announcing Butler’s appointment.
Aside from her identity, Butler’s career—some of it, at least—would seem to show quite liberal leanings. Much of Butler’s early career took place in the field of labor organizing, where she often served in a managerial role. Indeed, Butler spent nearly a decade as the president SEIU local 2015, a union dedicated to long-term care workers spread throughout the Los Angeles area. She was also the president of SEIU California, the statewide union organization, and has been credited with championing a number of progressive causes, including pushing for and helping secure a $15 per hour minimum wage for California workers—the first statewide wage of its kind.
But, starting in 2019, Butler made an explicit jump from labor organizing to the field of political consulting. For close to two years, Butler served as a partner at SCRB Strategies—a consulting firm that, since Butler’s time with it, has since re-branded as Bearstar Strategies. SCRB is described as being something of a political kingmaker, having been influential in helping numerous power players in California politics get elected, including Newsom and California’s previous governor Jerry Brown, journalist Lee Fang writes. During the same period that she was with SCRB, Butler signaled a broader affinity for state-level politics, doing consulting work for the presidential campaign of then California Senator Kamala Harris.
In 2019, it was reported that Butler had been retained by Uber at the same time that the ride-share giant was reeling from the passage of AB5, California’s landmark legislation that (temporarily) forced Uber and its ilk to re-classify its workers as employees instead of contractors. Public documents show SCRB was paid $105,000 by Uber during the first six months of 2019. The exact details of Butler’s consulting work for Uber isn’t totally clear, except that she was helping “advise the company on its dealings with organized labor,” as the Los Angeles Times previously put it. Uber later successfully lobbied to pass Prop 22, a ballot measure that effectively overturned AB5 and returned its workers to the lowly designation of contractor—thus allowing them to be legally denied benefits.
Butler was working for Harris at the same time that she was lobbying for Uber.
Next, for approximately a year, Butler worked for Airbnb as its director of public policy and campaigns in North America. Lee Fang says Butler was tasked with overseeing “the company’s lobbying team in Washington, D.C.” Since leaving Airbnb, Butler has served as the president of EMILY’s List, a well-known political action committee devoted to electing Democratic, pro-abortion women to office.
There was also some recent controversy over the fact that Butler’s EMILY’s List and X (Twitter) profiles described her as being based in Maryland. Both page have since been scrubbed, and a Newsom rep recently explained to the press that while Butler has resided in “the D.C. area,” she also owns a home in California, and will soon be re-registering as a California resident to fulfill the mandate required by the position.
Some progressives would prefer someone else
Before Newsom announced Butler as his choice on Sunday, some progressives urged the adoption of a different candidate. The Congressional Black Caucus, a historically important force in progressive politics, asked the governor to instead choose Rep. Barbara Lee, D-California. “She is the only person with the courage, the vision, and the record to eradicate poverty, face down the fossil fuel industry, defend our democracy, and tirelessly advance the progressive agenda,” the CBC wrote, in a letter to the governor.
If Butler decides to run for a full term, she may have a fight on her hands. In addition to Lee, two other politicians have announced their intentions of running for her seat. Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter have both announced their intentions to seek the seat.
Whether Butler merely ends up serving as an interim leader or decides to run for a full term in Feinstein’s former seat remains to be seen. That said, it remains to be seen what kind of political leader she will be, or for how long she’ll serve. While some might prefer a decidedly less corporatist politician, any anybody with a decade-plus of union organizing work can’t be the worst leader in the world.