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Sen. Laphonza Butler isn’t just keeping a seat warm in Washington

When all is said and done, Sen. Laphonza Butler will only be in the U.S. Senate for about 13 months.

A former labor leader, Butler was sworn into the Senate in October 2023, replacing Sen. Dianne Feinstein after her death. And instead of joining what was then a crowded field of candidates vying for the spot this election cycle, Butler opted not to run for a full term.

That makes Butler somewhat of a lame duck, an elected official in a seat while a successor has either already been chosen or will be soon.

But a lame duck generally is seen as someone who is just keeping the seat warm, someone with less influence.

And that’s not how Butler is approaching her time in the Senate.



Just last week, Butler launched a Youth Advisory Council, a group of 30 young people (ages 16 through 28) from around the state who will regularly meet with the senator. The idea is for the council to be a “sounding board” of sorts for Butler and her staff in drafting legislation while also providing an opportunity for the young people to be more involved in their government.

“While I serve all 40 million Californians, I am convinced that it is these young leaders who are going to be impacted for the longest period of time by the decisions that we make today as government,” said Butler.

“I also just wanted to make sure I was paying attention to what I think is part of my responsibility, which is to help to usher in the next generation of public servants, inspiriting them about the possibilities of government, how we can utilize the tools of government to advance the issues that are more important to us,” she added.

Butler, a Democrat, also recently convened a Judiciary subcommittee exploring voting rights in Montgomery, Alabama.

Those efforts are “thoughtful” approaches to the job, said Matt Lesenyie, a political science professor at Cal State Long Beach, given how increasingly difficult it is to get legislation passed in the House right now (on Tuesday, House Speaker Mike Johnson faced increasing pressure to oust him from the leadership role) and the time constraints of the job.

“Any given senator today is going to have a hard time passing laws because of the Republican House and the state of their majority and dysfunction,” Lesenyie said. “That’s to say, even a Chuck Schumer, who is a lifer in the Senate, would have a tough time getting a bill written and signed into law right now.”

“Given that structural situation, enter Butler, who has until November,” he added. “Structurally, it is not practical for a new legislator to expect to write a new law in such a short amount of time given the staffing and ramping up of institutional knowledge.”

But focusing on projects like the youth council is a way to help advance policy for the next crop of lawmakers — and the next generation to effectuate institutional change, he said.

“As a Californian, as a voter, I would look at that record of accomplishment of something she could take to the next workplace,” he said. “But also for us, that’s really cool that we don’t just have a seat warmer.”

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Butler has waded into legislation as well, though.

Most recently, she joined her fellow Californian, Sen. Alex Padilla, on a bill that would expand Joshua Tree National Park and create the Chuckwalla National Monument in Riverside and Imperial counties. She’s also thrown her support behind a bill meant to help small businesses purchase zero-emission equipment.

Having ‘a servant’s heart’

At first glance, Butler was a bit of a surprising choice when Gov. Gavin Newsom named her to the seat — after all, she was living in the Washington, D.C., area for her job leading Emily’s List, a political organization that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights. (She moved back to her View Park home and re-registered to vote in California before her swearing-in.)

Yet, Butler has long been “adjacent to the legislative process,” she said, through her work as a labor organizer. And a duty to service was instilled in her even earlier.

Right after finishing college at Jackson State University, Butler joined the SEIU labor organization traveling around the country, from Milwaukee to New Orleans to Philadelphia, engaging with workers.

“At every turn and opportunity where workers were organizing, it seemed that government had a role to play — either supporting workers and their efforts to organize or being a part of negotiating the contracts and funding,” said Butler. “That is what sort of brought me in the space of politics: It was really being committed to improving the lives of working families.”

Butler grew up in Magnolia, Mississippi — a small town in the southern part of the state — with two brothers. Her father died when she was a teenager, and her mother often worked multiple jobs, including as a caregiver.

It’s her mother, she said, who taught both Butler and her brothers the importance of service.

“Nothing is for ourselves, that everything we do has to be in service of others and making (the world) better,” she recalled her mother’s lesson.

And then later, while serving on the board of the nonprofit Children’s Defense Fund, Butler was reminded of a quote from former Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress: “Service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth.”

“I truly do think about the people who have guided me and sacrificed for me and poured into me and the communities I come from,” said Butler. “If I can use any opportunities I can to serve people, to help them advance and put those communities … that means the world to me.”

Butler has also worked in the private sector for Airbnb and served as a senior advisor for Vice President Kamala Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign. She worked at a political firm along with strategists who have worked with prominent California Democrats, including Newsom.

And Butler is shouldering a lot of “first” and “only” monikers in the U.S. Senate.

She’s only the third Black woman to serve in the Senate and the first openly LGBTQ+ senator from California. She’s also the lone Black woman serving in the upper chamber right now.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Source: Orange County Register

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