Lesbian Labor and Repro Rights Leader Chosen to Succeed LGBTQ+ Ally Dianne Feinstein

Vice President Kamala Harris and first Black openly lesbian U.S. senator, Laphonza Butler. (Credit: Kamala Harris’ Twitter)
Vice President Kamala Harris and first Black openly lesbian U.S. senator, Laphonza Butler. (Credit: Kamala Harris’ Twitter)

In 2021, California governor Gavin Newsom promised to fill any Senate vacancies with a Black woman after then-senator Kamala Harris left the Senate to become Vice President. Newsom had named Alex Padilla, the first Latino man in the Senate, to succeed Harris. That move was much criticized as it left the Senate with no Black woman senator, when Black women are the Democratic base. 

On Sunday, Newsom made good on his promise. 

Laphonza Butler, president of EMILYs List and a former labor leader in Philadelphia and California, was named by Newsom to fill the seat left vacant by Dianne Feinstein’s death. Butler will be the first Black lesbian to serve openly in Congress after spending two decades of leadership in the fight for reproductive and labor rights. Her appointment will also secure the slim Democratic majority in the Senate leading into the 2024 elections.

Announcing his decision on Twitter/X on Sunday night, Newsom wrote, “As we mourn the enormous loss of Sen. Feinstein, the very freedoms she fought for — reproductive freedom, equal protection, and safety from gun violence — have never been under greater assault.”

Newsom said, “Laphonza has spent her entire career fighting for women and girls and has been a fierce advocate for working people. She will make history — becoming the first Black lesbian to openly serve in the U.S. Senate.”

He continued, “From her time as President of EMILY’s List to leading the state’s largest labor union, she has always stood up for what is right and has led with her heart and her values. I have no doubt she will carry the baton left by Senator Feinstein, continue to break glass ceilings, and fight for all Californians in Washington.”

Butler, who was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday with her wife Neneki Lee at her side, becomes only the third Black woman in the Senate in U.S. history and the second out lesbian, joining Wisconsin Democrat Tammy Baldwin. Arizona Independent Kyrsten Sinema is openly bisexual.

Dianne Feinstein died suddenly last Thursday after casting a vote to keep the government open and avoid a shutdown. While no immediate cause of death was listed, Feinstein had been ill for some months. Feinstein, the longest serving woman in Senate history, was a staunch LGBTQ ally. At 90, she was the oldest sitting member of Congress and was first elected in 1992 when there were only three women in the Senate.

Feinstein’s rise in politics in San Francisco and later in the Senate began with the assassinations of liberal San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in California — the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. That act of violence thrust Feinstein into an historic role. Feinstein served as the board’s first female president and as such announced the assassinations to the city in a press conference: “Both Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk have been shot and killed. The suspect is Supervisor Dan White.”

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2008, Feinstein talked about finding the bodies of Milk and Moscone. She said she had felt for the pulse of Milk and her finger slipped in blood into a bullet hole.

In a statement, the morning after her death, Equality California, the state’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group said, “Senator Feinstein stood with our community back when few others did, fighting for funding and action to combat the AIDS crisis when most elected officials chose to look away.”

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ+ advocacy group, cited Feinstein’s “sterling record of support for the LGBTQ+ community.”

As president of the Board of Supervisors, Feinstein became interim mayor and then was elected. She spent a decade in that role and had a failed run for governor before being elected to the Senate. Just as she had been the first woman on the Board of Supervisors and first woman mayor of San Francisco, she became the first woman senator from California.

Feinstein’s relationship to the LGBTQ+ community was forged by the assassinations which came just before the AIDS epidemic hit San Francisco. Feinstein was a stalwart in supporting the community through the AIDS crisis, but her stance on same-sex unions was slower to evolve. In 1982, she angered the gay community by vetoing a domestic partnership bill.

But Feinstein later voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which banned federal recognition of same-sex marriage, and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) military policy that required LGBTQ+ military service members to stay silent about their orientation. Feinstein was one of only 14 senators to vote against DOMA.

In 2022, Feinstein was the lead Senate sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act, which repealed DOMA and required the federal government and all state governments to recognize same-sex and interracial marriages. President Joe Biden signed the act, solidifying the right to same-sex marriage.

Now Butler succeeds Feinstein — a daunting role — but like Feinstein, Butler has had many firsts herself. At the time Newsom tapped her for the Senate, Butler was in her second year as the first Black woman president of EMILYs List, the nation’s largest resource dedicated to electing Democratic pro-choice women to office.

Butler served for more than a decade as president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, which represents more than 325,000 nursing-home and home-care workers throughout California. SEIU Local 2015 is the largest union in California and the largest long-term care union in the country. At SEIU, Butler worked to raise California’s minimum wage and raise income taxes on the wealthiest Californians.

SEIU tweeted Oct. 2, “As president of @seiucalifornia & @seiu2015, Laphonza Butler was a tireless advocate for working people. We are excited for her to bring her talent & passion to her new role. Congratulations, Senator @LaphonzaB!”

Butler also worked as an adviser to Harris during her 2020 presidential bid and for Hillary Clinton during her 2016 presidential run and was a California elector for Clinton in 2016.

Before Feinstein’s death, House reps Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee had been campaigning since last year for the seat. According to FEC filings, Schiff has raised $30 million, Porter $10.4 million and Lee, $1.4 million and Schiff leads in the polls. Some urged Newsom to name Congressional Black Caucus member Lee to finish Feinstein’s term. But Newsom said it would be unfair to interfere in the race by appointing one of the contenders. Butler could also choose to run for the seat herself in 2024.

In a news conference Monday, Newsom said of Butler, “I have an incredible appointee.” 

He also said, “The assault on the LGBT community, the assault on the African-American community, criminalizing speech and books and travel, this cultural purge that’s going on in this country — all of those things matter. Laphonza Butler is uniquely positioned and simply the best person I could find for this moment and this job.”

Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said, “The appointment of Laphonza Butler to the Senate is a landmark moment in the fight for social, racial and economic justice. As the first Black lesbian to represent California in the United States Senate, Laphonza brings a compelling voice for abortion rights, the labor movement and civil rights into Congress. Her leadership is a testament to the legacy of Senator Dianne Feinstein’s strong record of pro-LGBTQ+ support.”

Robinson added, “The threats to reproductive freedoms and LGBTQ+ families emanating from the Supreme Court and anti-equality politicians are twin crises that require immediate attention, and Laphonza Butler is an exceptional advocate on both of these issues. We thank Gov. Newsom for making an excellent choice in Laphonza Butler to succeed Senator Feinstein.”

On Twitter/X, Butler wrote, “I’m honored to accept Gov. @GavinNewsom’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 added, “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, who has lived in Maryland since her appointment to EMILYs List, but maintained a residence in Los Angeles, has re-registered to vote in California and she, her wife Neneki Lee and their daughter Nylah, will return to Los Angeles.

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