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Laphonza Butler Sworn in as First Black Lesbian U.S. Senator

Laphonza Butler Sworn in as First Black Lesbian U.S. Senator

Laphonza Butler, Neneki Lee, and Kamala Harris

Vice President Kamala Harris swore Butler in on Tuesday.

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Laphonza Butler was sworn in as a U.S. senator from California Tuesday, becoming only the third Black woman in the Senate and the first out LGBTQ+ person of color in the chamber.

Butler, a lesbian, will fill out the term of Dianne Feinstein, the longest-serving woman in chamber. Feinstein died Friday at age 90.

Butler was sworn in by another Black woman from California, Vice President Kamala Harris. Harris was a U.S. senator from the state from 2017 to 2021. The only other Black woman in the Senate was Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, in office from 1993 to 1999.

The Senate now has four Black members, the most ever. Besides Butler, they are fellow Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina. At 44, Butler is one of the youngest senators as well.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Sunday that he was appointing Butler to serve the remainder of Feinstein’s term, which runs until 2025. “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.

Butler has been president of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women to office, since 2021. She was the first Black woman to head the group.

Before that, she was director of public policy and campaigns in North America for Airbnb. She also was a partner at political consulting firm SCRB Strategies, where she worked for many candidates, and was a senior adviser on Harris’s campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. Butler was previously a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in California.

She is a former president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, the largest union in California and the largest union for home-care workers in the nation. She was elected to this position at age 30, making her one of the youngest people ever to head the organization. In that capacity she led a successful effort to get California to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour (it is now $15.50 and will go up to $16 in 2024) and enact paid family and medical leave. She was an SEIU international vice president and president of the SEIU California State Council.

Butler also worked on Holly Mitchell’s campaign for Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Mitchell’s election in 2020 made the board all women for the first time in its history.

She has been a member of the University of California Board of Regents and the board of directors for the Children’s Defense Fund and BLACK PAC. She grew up in Magnolia, Miss., and attended Jackson State University, one of the nation’s leading historically Black universities.

She is married to Neneki Lee, director of the SEIU Public Services Division. They have an 8-year-old daughter, Nylah.

The Congressional Black Caucus also planned a ceremonial swearing-in for Butler.

“The CBC celebrates the appointment of Laphonza Butler to represent the state of California in the U.S. Senate,” said a statement from the group. “Her background and years of experience will bring a much-needed perspective to the Senate, which currently does not have any Black women. For many years, Laphonza Butler has been a champion for women and girls, students, and union workers, and we believe she will bring that same fight to the U.S. Senate on behalf of Californians and our entire nation. As the first lesbian Black woman in the U.S. Senate, Laphonza will bring an important perspective to the upper house at a time when the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community are under attack. We look forward to welcoming Laphonza as the 59th member of the CBC and to continuing our work on behalf of the American people.”

Feinstein, who had been in poor health for some time, had announced that she wouldn’t seek reelection in 2024, and several Democrats are campaigning for the Senate seat. They include current U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, Katie Porter, and Adam Schiff. Newsom had promised not to choose one of the declared candidates to avoid any appearance of favoritism, but a spokesman for the governor has said Butler is free to run for the seat if she so desires.

Pictured, from left: Sen. Laphonza Butler, Neneki Lee, and Vice President Kamala Harris

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Trudy Ring

Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.
Trudy Ring is The Advocate’s senior politics editor and copy chief. She has been a reporter and editor for daily newspapers and LGBTQ+ weeklies/monthlies, trade magazines, and reference books. She is a political junkie who thinks even the wonkiest details are fascinating, and she always loves to see political candidates who are groundbreaking in some way. She enjoys writing about other topics as well, including religion (she’s interested in what people believe and why), literature, theater, and film. Trudy is a proud “old movie weirdo” and loves the Hollywood films of the 1930s and ’40s above all others. Other interests include classic rock music (Bruce Springsteen rules!) and history. Oh, and she was a Jeopardy! contestant back in 1998 and won two games. Not up there with Amy Schneider, but Trudy still takes pride in this achievement.