It hasn’t been emphasized enough that Laphonza Butler, California’s newest U.S. senator, has no legislative experience.
This hole in his resume is very important despite an erosion of public faith in legislative expertise that is a bipartisan affliction in our politics. It was one of the factors that led to the election of President Donald Trump. In liberal, one-party California, Gov. Gavin Newsom ignored the importance of legislative experience when he appointed the inexperienced Butler to fill the late Dianne Feinstein’s seat.
Butler, who was sworn in Tuesday, has been widely celebrated for her race, her gender, her orientation and her sterling credentials of a certain kind. She has also been praised within an echo chamber of Democrats, many of whom have been elected to public office, although Butler never was.
Lost after Butler’s appointment was the kind of critical scrutiny that would normally accompany a major political appointment. His appointment is problematic because California’s voting public has no idea where Butler stands on crucial issues because he has never had to cast a vote at any level of government. What are his views on foreign policy? Despite remaining in power too long, Feinstein was a titan in California and national politics and is being replaced by a legislative newcomer.
Additionally, Butler has made curious decisions and statements in the past that have not been scrutinized as they would be in an election campaign. He joined the Senate this week shortly after writing a letter on behalf of a former Los Angeles City Councilman who was convicted in a federal fraud and bribery scheme. Mark Ridley-Thomas faces 42 months in federal prison. Butler’s letter on behalf of Ridley-Thomas earlier this year was a recitation of the political favors and personal kindness Ridley-Thomas bestowed upon him. How he supported his efforts to secure a $15 an hour minimum wage in California. He how considerate he was with his partner after a cancer diagnosis.
Butler’s main request in the letter was for authorities to consider “the totality of who and what Mr. Ridley-Thomas has been, the work he has done and the leadership he has shown to many of us in difficult times.”
It was the type of letter a defender would write, which is what Butler has been in his career. A defender of unionists but also, curiously, of some companies hated by unions.
Butler has done consulting work for ride-sharing giant Uber. Earlier this year, a state appeals court ruled that companies like Uber and Lyft can continue to treat their California drivers as independent contractors.
“The ruling primarily supports a voter-approved law, called Proposition 22, that said drivers…are not entitled to benefits like paid sick leave and unemployment insurance,” National Public Radio wrote.
Lorena González Fletcher, leader of the California Federation of Labor and former state assemblywoman, had this to say about the ruling: “Today the Court of Appeals chose to side with powerful corporations over workers, allowing companies to buy their way out of our state labor laws and undermine our state constitution.”
Butler also decided to support Uber, despite his work experience.
He declined to discuss details of the work he did for Uber. And González Fletcher has declined to comment on Butler’s appointment to the Senate. That California’s most prominent union leader says nothing about Butler beyond “congratulations” says it all. She also hints at the political implications of Butler’s appointment that have been obscured by her personal history as a black, gay woman who joined the elite ranks of the U.S. Senate.
Butler’s story obscured serious political implications
In naming Butler, Newsom said he placed no conditions on her appointment and that if she decided to run for a full term in 2024, it was up to her. Butler won’t answer the question of whether he’ll run in 2024, but it seems like a safe bet that someone will do a poll to gauge his chances.
If Butler decided she wanted to run for a full term, it’s inconceivable that Newsom would stand by and let her lose. He would like to see his appointee defeat Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, members of the House of Representatives vying for the Senate seat now held by Butler.
So if Newsom is willing to do that, why wasn’t he willing to support Lee?
She is an experienced legislator, with a strong voice. She is principled and battle tested. By appointing Butler, Newsom was choosing someone with a profile that suited her political aspirations.
If Newsom really wanted to elect a Black woman who had paid her dues and done the hard work of getting in front of voters to get elected, he wouldn’t have chosen Laphonza Butler.
But he did it because Newsom is who he is. He correctly calculated that once Butler was appointed, the same critics angry at him for giving the impression that his appointment was a seat warmer would suddenly be happy.
Butler’s personal story silenced real skepticism about Newsom’s choice.
But there should be more scrutiny. Butler’s appointment is an outlier in California politics.
The last time someone with such inexperience was appointed to the Senate was in 1964, when then-Gov. Pat Brown hired Pierre Salinger to fill a position left vacant by the death of an incumbent, just as Butler replaced Feinstein.
Salinger had been President John F. Kennedy’s press secretary before serving a brief stint in the Senate that ended after a few months when he was defeated by Republican George Murphy in November 1964. Unlike Butler, Salinger was born and raised in California. He grew up, was educated, and worked in San Francisco before working for JFK.
Butler is from Mississippi. For a decade, she was president of SEIU 2015, California’s largest union representing more than 325,000 nursing home and home care workers. Butler was an adviser to Kamala Harris during her disastrous run for president in the 2020 election, which ended before the California primary. She was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the UC Board of Regents and served three years before moving to Maryland to lead EMILY’s List.
Much has been made of the fact that she had been living in Maryland for the past two years when Newsom appointed her to the Senate, but the truth is even more troubling. In her life, Butler has only passed through California in pursuit of her impressive professional career.
Despite the pitfalls of a barrier-breaking personal history, Butler is where he is today thanks to the patronage of California’s elite political class. He gained an advantage in the US Senate thanks to political calculations, despite his lack of experience.
Californians need to know this in case Butler decides to run for elected office for the first time in his life.