Laphonza Butler passes her first political test and passes the Senate climb

Laphonza Butler during her swearing-in ceremony for the US Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington DC on October 1.  3, 2023

Laphonza Butler during her swearing-in ceremony for the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC, on October 1. August 3, 2023. Photo by Stephanie Scarbrough, AP Photo

Laphonza Butler passes her first political test and passes the Senate climb

California Politics, 2024 Elections

Mark Z. Barabak

Oct. 19, 2023

Laphonza Butler has had a whirlwind the past few weeks.

Overnight, she went from being a campaign strategist unknown to most and operating behind the scenes, bailing out political insiders, to a U.S. senator representing nearly 40 million residents of the most important state in the union.

Even Butler was surprised by the governor. Gavin

Newsom tapped her to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein. It was like plucking a set designer from the wings and, without any announcement, immediately putting her in the spotlight.

Since then, as Butler learned which Capitol Hill steps lead where, flew across the country to meet with different constituencies, and developed a case of COVID-19, she was left with one overriding question: Would she run for office in 2024? a full term?

On Thursday she gave her answer: No.

It was the right decision, and a politically astute one.

By forgoing a campaign that would have been difficult to win, Butler ensures she is well-positioned for a future run if she chooses to take office. It also gives the state’s very fresh freshman senator the opportunity to dedicate herself full-time to her duties in Congress.

That’s exactly what Butler should do.

The decision, which was announced abruptly, was hastened by a number of looming deadlines, including budget cuts to compete for the endorsement of the state Democratic Party and be included as a candidate in the information guide mailed to every California voter.

But the most important date Butler faced was March 5, when the state holds its top two “jungle” primaries. (The two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the runoff in November, regardless of party.)

That contest is just over four months away, an incredibly short time to mount a statewide campaign, raising the many millions of dollars needed to advertise and build even a superficial relationship with voters located across the vast expanse of California.

Feinstein, for years the state’s best-known politician, has taken a long time to evolve her near-universal name recognition from Eureka to Yucaipa. And that was after she had already run two statewide campaigns.

Butler faced other challenges.

She lived in Maryland and worked in Washington, DC, where she led the women’s campaign organization Emily’s List before her Senate appointment. Her lack of a long-term stay in California would certainly have become a problem.

Butler, a former labor leader, also faced agitation from the political left over the tidy sum she earned working for Uber, as the ride-hailing service tried to undermine its drivers’ push for better wages and working conditions. That would have been a problem too.

However, neither presented insurmountable obstacles.

Butler’s biggest obstacles were time and money, two essential ingredients for political success.

She would have started flat-footed against a formidable field that included Reps. Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee who together have amassed tens of millions of dollars.

For her part, Butler has made no special efforts to raise money. Some familiar with her work at Emily’s List were impressed by the financial ledger under her supervision.

Political handicappers thus tended to overestimate the benefit of Butler’s labor relations. While she has some personal connections, several unions had already committed to others in the race or taken a wait-and-see approach. It is not difficult to imagine that organized labor would remain neutral, or support multiple candidates, if Butler had happily entered the Senate contest.

By speaking out, Butler is making the kind of courageous, slightly opinionated statement you often hear under such circumstances.

Knowing you can win a campaign doesn’t always mean running a campaign, she said.

The rest of her written comments seemed more deliberate and truthful.

I know this will come as a surprise to many because traditionally we don’t see those in power letting it go,” Butler said. “It may not be the decision people expected, but it’s the right one for me.

At 44, Butler could have a good, long political career if she wants to stay in elected office.

Once she leaves the Senate, it’s unlikely she’ll return anytime soon, given the relatively young age of California’s other senator, 50-year-old Alex Padilla, and the likelihood that whoever voters choose in November 2024 will have a long time will serve.

But the California governor’s seat will be open in 2026, and Butler could be an attractive candidate in a wide-open field.

She now has just over a year to score some successes in Washington, travel the state to introduce herself to voters and, if Butler chooses, lay the necessary political and financial foundation for a future political campaign.

Much better than working part-time in the Senate and spending part-time on a possibly futile attempt to stay there.

Whether or not he runs was the first major political test facing California’s new senator.

She made a smart move.


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