Laphonza Butler’s California Connections

New U.S. senator boasts deep involvement in labor issues in California

PUBLISHED OCT 3, 2023 3:20 P.M.
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Laphonza Butler—with her hand on a bible being held by her wife, Neneki Lee—is sworn into the US Senate by Vice Pres. Kamala Harris.

Laphonza Butler—with her hand on a bible being held by her wife, Neneki Lee—is sworn into the US Senate by Vice Pres. Kamala Harris.

April Verrett says she was surprised when she saw the Los Angeles Times reporting on Saturday that Laphonza Butler was among the names who could be appointed to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. But Verrett's reaction wasn't just one of surprise.

“It was just like, ‘Hmm, that makes sense,’” says Verrett, secretary-treasurer for the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, a roughly two-million-member organization; Butler served as president of SEIU's California chapter from 2012 to 2019.

Many Californians might be just learning the name of the 44-year-old Butler, who will be the first openly LGBTQ person to represent California in the Senate and only the third African-American woman to serve in the body. When Gov. Gavin Newsom chose Butler to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died Sept. 29 at 90, he called Butler “the only choice,” according to KCRA.

People like Verrett, who spoke to California Local on Tuesday morning, knew Butler long before, and spoke of a champion for both workers and everyday Californians entering the Senate.

Butler's Background

Butler is originally from Mississippi and was educated at Jackson State University. Verrett says they attended labor organizing training together, through the AFL-CIO, in March 2001 in Atlanta. She still remembers “how frickin’ smart Laphonza was,” and her ability to think strategically.

“She’s always had the ability to see the entire chessboard and plot out the most strategic way to get to the end goal,” Verrett said. “And she very rarely misses.” 

Butler first appeared in a news story in California in late 2009 when a federal judge blocked state officials from cutting aid to senior citizens and disabled individuals. “Laphonza Butler, a trustee of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, said in a statement that the temporary restraining order shows that the ‘judge recognized the urgency of the situation,’” the Sacramento Bee noted.

In April 2010, according to Butler’s LinkedIn, she became president of the SEIU ULTW, or United Long Term Care Workers, which would eventually merge with the SEIU Local 2015 in June 2015. Butler served as president of the SEIU Local 2015 through December 2019 according to her LinkedIn page, with news reports announcing in 2018 that she would be leaving to work as a political consultant.

Verrett succeeded Butler as president of the Local.

“Laphonza came to California when she was still relatively young, and it was at a time where the local, at that time, was in tumult,” Verrett recalls. “She brought her calm, cool leadership to a situation that it was desperately needed, and she inspired hope in the members of that union. And today, as a result, the 2015 is I would dare say one of the most powerful labor organizations in the country.”

In May 2010, the Associated Press noted that union had organized a 365-mile march calling for more investment in California’s In-Home Social Services Program, or IHSS. “Our members live this economic crisis every day and it’s always real that California is in a cash crisis,” Butler told the AP. “But what’s also real is, having IHSS brings federal money.”

Butler became president of SEIU California in June 2012. The following year, the Los Angeles Times reported that Butler had signed a letter along with several other labor leaders in the state opposing the sale of the Times to the Koch brothers. The brothers soon lost interest in the acquisition.

She also penned opinion pieces for places like the Sacramento Bee, taking on Prop. 45, which she argued, in her capacity as president of the SEIU Local 2015, “would create lengthy delays and barriers to care, even while we are working to streamline the process and open doors.” The initiative failed resoundingly with voters.

There were lighter moments, too. When the SEIU Local 2015 and ULTW united, Butler, Verrett and others went on a listening tour. They wound up having an issue with their RV and spending a couple of days unexpectedly in Lake Tahoe. “We just hung out and we played pool and we watched old movies,” Verrett says.

Butler also factored into the fight to raise California’s minimum wage to $15. She promised in April 2016 as a bill to do this went to then Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk that she’d pull back a ballot initiative the SEIU was supporting to raise minimum wage, so long as the bill passed.

“The credit for making history today belongs to the workers who spoke out and risked it all, the labor unions and community organizations who supported them, and elected leaders here in California who listened,” Butler said, according to the Sacramento Bee. “As a result, millions of Californians are on the path out of poverty.”

Beyond this, other labor-related work for Butler included: expressing concerns about implementing single-payer healthcare in 2017; supporting SB 10, a bill to end bail in California, in 2018; and serving on a task force that same year that looked at opportunities the Los Angeles school system’s real estate holdings offered.

The New Senator's Recent Work

Butler has stayed active since leaving the labor world, serving as a partner in political consultant SCRB Strategies, serving on the board of directors of Airbnb, and most recently as president of EMILY’s List, an influential political organization that helps elect pro-choice women.

Her work after organized labor took Butler to the Washington, D.C. area. Reports Monday noted that she would be reregistering to vote in California, to reestablish residency.

Verrett appeared hopeful about what lies ahead and the caliber of the person she knows entering the Senate.

“She’s a wife, she’s a mother, she’s a daughter, she’s a friend,” Verrett said. “She did not grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth, She’s from Mississippi, she knows what it is to work hard, to watch her mom raise three kids on her own after they lost her dad. So she’s just like most of us.”

Verrett said California’s people will have a champion in the Senate in Butler.

“She’ll lead, of course, with her mind,” Verrett said. “But she’ll lead with her heart, and she’ll do it in the interest of Californians.”


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