Laphonza Butler becomes first Black LGBTQ+ California senator

After the death of longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced he would appoint longtime Democratic strategist Laphonza Butler to fill the seat.

This is Newsom’s second chance during his tenure as governor to appoint a senator to the upper chamber.

She served as an advisor to Senator Kamala Harris during her 2020 presidential campaign. Butler also serves as president of political action committee EMILY’s List.

The crosswalk on Broadway and Junipero. The crosswalks The intersection neighbors several LGBTQ+ businesses.
The Pride crosswalk on Broadway and Junipero Ave. in Long Beach. The intersection neighbors several LGBTQ+ businesses off of Broadway. Photo credit: Luis Castilla

Associate professor of political science and expert on LGBTQ+ politics Kathryn Perkins said she believes Butler’s appointment resonates with a broader sense of political representation.

“I think it’s important to not just make symbolic overtures to the Black community, as many politicians have done, but to demonstrate a real practical commitment as well,” Perkins said.

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom promised to appoint a Black woman to the Senate if Feinstein resigned. Newsom appointed former California Secretary of State Alex Padilla, making him the state’s first Latino senator. The governor fulfilled his promise by naming Butler as California’s new senator.

“The symbolic representation is not just that she’s queer, it’s that she’s queer and a Black woman,” Perkins said. “That combination really speaks to the diversity of queer representation in Washington and I think that’s something that is particularly inspiring.”

In 2021, Census information revealed that California has the highest LGBTQ+ population in the country with 2.7 million people, and a Black population of about 2.5 million.

“Intersectionality matters,” Perkins said. “It’s more important to have LGBT representation from backgrounds that historically are not represented.”

Political science professor Matt Lesenyie said he hadn’t heard of Butler before her being named Feinstein’s successor.

Lesenyie said he believes Newsom may have named Butler in a targeted selection because she is both Black and a member of the LGBTQ+ community.

“If he picked her and then somebody said ‘Oh, and by the way, she’s gay,’ and he was surprised, I just don’t see that happening,” Lesenyie said.

Perkins said Butler should lean into her history as a labor activist, considering all the strikes happening at the moment. She lives in Maryland and has worked as a consultant for both Uber and Airbnb.

“The awkwardness is that she doesn’t live in the state and her time with Uber as a lobbyist is kind of problematic,” Lesenyie said. “Those I guess weren’t big enough booboos for him to, you know, overcome the benefits he saw to her blackness and her identity, her queer identity.”

Butler must run for re-election in the March Primary Election if she wishes to keep her seat in Congress.

Perkins said perception matters. “It’s important for people to see that there are people who are like them who are in elected office,” Perkins said.

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