Newsom’s Pick of Abortion Activist to US Senate Reveals White House Ambitions, Experts Say

California Gov. Gavin Newsom appoints Laphonza Butler to seat following death of Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Senator-delegate Laphonza Butler meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in his office on Capitol Hill on Oct. 3, in Washington, D.C. Butler was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the vacant Senate seat of California following the passing of Dianne Feinstein.
Senator-delegate Laphonza Butler meets with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in his office on Capitol Hill on Oct. 3, in Washington, D.C. Butler was appointed by Gov. Gavin Newsom to the vacant Senate seat of California following the passing of Dianne Feinstein. (photo: Anna Rose Layden / Getty Images)

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointment of the president of Emily’s List to the U.S. Senate helps shore up support among Blacks and left-leaning women but also furthers his national ambitions in the Democratic Party, political scientists told CNA. 

Laphonza Butler, 44, checks a number of boxes among Democratic interest groups — Butler is Black, female, a lesbian, a former union president, and the head of the most powerful pro-abortion political action committee in the country. 

“The appointment clearly demonstrates the centrality of the abortion issue in the modern Democratic Party. There is simply very little, if any, daylight between the abortion lobby and the Democratic Party in 2023,” said Christopher Hare, associate professor of political science at the University of California-Davis, by email. “Not so long ago, the Democrats’ stance on the issue was that abortion should be ‘safe, legal and rare,’ but that mantra is now heresy.” 

Butler is Newsom’s pick to replace U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat who died Sept. 29 at age 90 after serving more than 30 years in the Senate. In California, the governor appoints someone to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate until the next scheduled election, which in this case is in 2024. 

Hare said that Newsom “has been careful to avoid attaching himself to far-left policies this legislative session as he looks to moderate his public image” — this past weekend he vetoed a bill seeking to provide unemployment benefits to striking workers, for instance. But Newsom and other Democratic politicians in the state see “more political upside than risk in continuing a leftward trajectory on abortion,” Hare said.

Butler doesn’t currently live in California — she moved to Maryland to become president of Emily’s List, a political action committee that raises money for women running for political office who support abortion, so she has to reregister to vote in California before she can take office later this week. But she has deep ties to Democratic politics in the state. Current U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris owes her rise in part to Butler.

In 2010, when Harris was waging an uncertain campaign for California attorney general and Butler was president of a union representing long-term care workers in the state, Butler engineered a rare three-candidate endorsement in the Democratic primary that kept Harris viable while smoothing over dissensions within the union leadership, according to a December 2018 story in the Los Angeles Times. In that same story, Harris described Butler as “whip smart” and someone who “stuck with me from the beginning through the end” despite “naysayers.” 

The imperative of choosing a Black woman

Before Harris became vice president in January 2021, she had to resign from the U.S. Senate, where she had been representing California since 2017. To replace her, Newsom appointed Alex Padilla, the state’s first Latino U.S. senator. In March 2021, Newsom promised that if Feinstein left the Senate before her term expired he would appoint a Black woman to replace her. 

Blacks are among the most reliable voters for the Democratic Party. A higher percentage of Blacks vote than do Latinos and Asians, according to an October 2022 Pew Research poll

“Blacks continue to be a critical base of support, but some polling shows that support weakening because of the economy,” said Michael Kryzanek, a professor emeritus of political science at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, in an email message to CNA. “Butler along with VP Harris will be important voices to strengthen the Black vote, especially among Black women, who vote more than Black men.” 

Butler was born and raised in Mississippi, where she was a high-achieving student in public schools. Her father died of heart disease when she was 16. Her mother worked several jobs, including the overnight shift as a nurse’s aide. 

“We weren’t the family that talked about elections or politics at the dinner table, but we were the family that talked about what it meant to be in service to others. What do we do to help somebody? In that way, I still think my mother’s influence carries me and propels me forward. What am I doing here at Emily’s List in service of others?” Butler told Elle magazine in November 2021. 

Butler went to Jackson State University in the state’s capital, earning a bachelor’s degree in political science. 

After college, she organized workers in Maryland, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Connecticut before moving to California in 2009. For about 10 years she served as president of Local 2015 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest union in the state and the largest union of long-term care workers in the country, according to her online biography published when then-Gov. Jerry Brown appointed her to the board of regents of the state university system in 2018. 

After leaving the union in 2018, she became a political consultant. She was a senior adviser of then-Sen. Harris during Harris’ failed run for president in 2020. 

Butler also advised Uber — which drew fire from some former allies, who see Uber as an exploiter of independent contractors. In 2020 she joined Airbnb before becoming head of Emily’s List in September 2021. 

Butler has a female partner — some sources say they are civilly married — and a daughter in third grade. 

She signs off text messages: “In solidarity.” 

Pragmatic Advocate 

In June 2022, on the day the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Butler appeared on a podcast.

She began by saying she had dropped off her daughter that morning at camp and envisioned what it would be like to pick her up at the end of the day. 

“She will have no idea that the thing that is top of mind for me is that she is less free, 12 hours later, than she was when she got on the bus to go to camp. And for so many of us, that is what this moment really means. And that’s what it really communicates, that women and little girls in this country are now second-class citizens, a permanent underclass,” Butler said. “And the little boys in her class can do whatever — can have the freedom to make whatever decision with their body they want. And I think this is a decision that is as much a slap in the face to the majority of women in this country, but it also speaks to the rights and freedoms of men. They should also have a voice in their ability to be able to think about how they want to plan their families and the futures that they want their children to have.” 

At times during the interview she emphasized coalition building, calling on listeners to “be empathetic to each other.” 

“Let’s show each other some compassion. This is not a moment for swift judgment about one another’s personal views, one way or the other. This is the moment for America to rise up and be her best. That requires us to listen to each other, even if our views are different,” Butler said. 

Here to Stay? 

Butler hasn’t said whether she’ll run for election to the U.S. Senate in 2024. The state’s open primary (scheduled for March 2024) already has three current Democratic members of the U.S. House of Representatives — Adam Schiff, 63; Katie Porter, 49; and Barbara Lee, 77, a Black woman who lobbied hard for the U.S. Senate appointments that went to Padilla and Butler. But recent polls suggest no current candidate has more than 20% support. 

“Senator-designee Butler is young, represents key identity groups and constituencies in the party, and has solid left-wing credentials (Emily’s List and union involvement with SEIU). For these reasons, I think she will quickly become a popular figure in California politics and in national Democratic circles,” Hare told CNA. 

“I certainly think she’s a viable Senate candidate in 2024 (especially in a splintered field where the top candidate is garnering less than 20% support in the polls), as this appointment gives her instant visibility and access to fundraising networks,” he said. “She may also decide to play a king- or queen-maker if she chooses, as her endorsement would have considerable weight and a real prize to be fought over by the declared candidates.” 

Newsom’s Presidential Ambitions 

Newsom, 55, is widely considered a future candidate for president, even as soon as 2024 if President Joe Biden drops out of the race because of age, health or low approval ratings

Newsom was raised a Catholic but as a public official, he has often clashed with Church teachings. 

In 2008, when he was the mayor of San Francisco, Newsom told The Santa Clara, the student newspaper of his alma mater, that he had “tremendous admiration for the Church and very strong faith … manifested in a less indoctrinated way.” But he also noted that Church officials criticized him for his support for abortion, fetal stem-cell research, and same-sex civil marriage. 

In September 2021, Newsom signed a bill providing for the removal from the State Capitol grounds a statue of St. Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Spanish Franciscan priest who ministered to Indigenous tribes in California. The bill accuses the Franciscan missions “initiated and overseen by Father Serra” with “enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide and assault on women” — dismissed as “outrageous claims” by the two archbishops of the state, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles. 

Will Newsom’s selection of Butler help him run for president in 2024 or 2028? 

Hare said “it likely helps him a bit among national Democrats” but “might also tarnish his electability in a general election.” 

Kryzanek, who was asked the same question, said: “Since Newsom appointed her, I would say that his priorities are pro-women, pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, pro-Black, which are central to the Democratic base and therefore are a plus to his national ambitions, but when those ambitions become an opportunity remains to be seen.”