‘Laphonza who?!?’: New Calif. senator a mystery to greens

By Timothy Cama | 10/03/2023 06:26 AM EDT

The climate and environment track record is thin for Laphonza Butler, who is expected to be sworn in Tuesday.

Laphonza Butler.

California Democrat Laphonza Butler was not well known to environmental advocates before Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped her to serve out the rest of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein's term. Adam Glanzman/Getty Images for Paramount

The woman who will represent California in the Senate for the next 15 months is a mostly unknown quantity to climate change and environmental advocates, though liberal organizations are embracing her.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced Laphonza Butler on Sunday night as his choice to fill out the remainder of the late Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s term, which ends in January 2025.

Butler is known mainly in the abortion rights and labor worlds. She’s currently president of Emily’s List, which helps Democratic women who support abortion rights in elections. She was previously president of Service Employees International Union Local 2015, California’s largest labor union.


In interviews and statements Monday, green groups threw their support behind Butler, who will be the third Black woman in the Senate and the first openly LGBTQ Black woman.

Still, there was concern from some about her track record. Others in the agriculture world contrasted Butler with Feinstein’s deep experience on water issues that are important to them.

Newsom called Butler “an advocate for women and girls, a second-generation fighter for working people and a trusted adviser to Vice President [Kamala] Harris.”

Butler offered humble words in accepting the appointment. “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,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Butler is expected to be sworn into office Tuesday.

‘Never said anything on climate’

While Butler has extensive experience in politics, including as a senior strategist to Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign, her lack of elected-office experience means she does not have much of a record in many policy areas.

“Laphonza who?!?” R.L. Miller, president of Climate Hawks Vote, a California-based political action committee, wrote on X after Butler’s appointment was reported.

“As far as I can see she has never said anything on climate,” Miller told E&E News in an email.

California Environmental Voters nonetheless welcomed Butler.

“As president of EMILY’s List and a former labor leader, Butler is a known advocate and we look forward to working with her on the progressive values she’s represented throughout her career,” they said.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, said Butler “has been a great partner during her time at California SEIU and EMILY’s List, and we look forward to continuing our partnership in the Senate, fighting for climate action, environmental justice, clean energy jobs, and a strong democracy.”

Other allies to the Democratic Party also cheered Newsom’s choice of Butler.

“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,” said Kelley Robinson, president of the Human Rights Campaign.

Water questions

On the other hand, agriculture and water advocates in California might be disappointed in Butler, particularly as the successor to Feinstein, who had a long record of working with farmers on water issues.

Joe Del Bosque cited “concern” in the farming community that Butler is not a lifetime Californian and most recently lived in Maryland. Del Bosque is a cantaloupe farmer, president of Del Bosque and a frequent advocate for the state’s agriculture sector on the national stage.

“Much of her career has been involved with special interests and political money,” he said. “Her profile is very narrow, while Sen. Feinstein, had a very deep, broad base, and she understood California’s issues, including those important to agriculture.”

Butler’s record on climate and the environment, while thin, shows she will probably be an ally to liberal causes.

“Right now is our time, and right now, it is our turn. It’s our turn to build power like we’ve never built power before, connecting abortion rights movement with labor movement with climate movement with Black Lives Matters movement with Native American protection movement,” she said in a May 2022 speech about the upcoming midterm election.

In an August X thread on Harris’ accomplishments, Butler wrote that the vice president “has been a champion for climate action and environmental justice.”

Harris “cast the tie-breaking vote on the Inflation Reduction Act, the most significant climate bill ever. In 2023 alone, she has held 23 climate events in 10 states, centering communities of color.”

Butler has not expressed a desire to run for a full six-year term in the seat in next year’s election. Newsom had previously said he would appoint someone who didn’t plan to run but has since stated that he put no preconditions of that nature on his decision.

Democratic Reps. Barbara Lee, Adam Schiff and Katie Porter are the main contenders in the 2024 race. Lee had indicated that she wanted to get the short-term appointment as well, so Newsom’s choice of Miller is seen as a snub to some of Lee’s supporters.

“I wish her well and look forward to working with her to deliver for our Golden State,” Lee said in a Monday appearance on CNN.