Two months into her tenure, the new junior senator from California, Laphonza Butler, has offered a fuller explanation for why she decided she would not be running for a full six-year term next year.
"This was never an opportunity that was on my bingo card, and there is no doubt that I want to continue to serve the people of California to use my voice and skill at its greatest capacity. I just didn’t want to be a U.S. senator," Butler says, in a new interview with the New York Times.
Butler was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom in early October to fill Senator Dianne Feinstein's seat in the chamber, just days after Feinstein's sudden death at age 90. Fulfilling a pledge he'd made publicly after filling an early vacancy, the one left by Kamala Harris when she assumed the vice presidency, with longtime friend Alex Padilla, Newsom selected a Black woman to fill the seat — but not the one who's actively running for it, Rep. Barbara Lee.
Newsom had later hedged and said that if he had another vacancy to fill, in the event of Feinstein's retirement or passing, before next year's election, he would select an interim caretaker who wouldn't disrupt the ongoing race for the seat. And that seems to be what he did with Butler.
While Newsom insisted, initially, that the decision whether to run was Butler's to make, there likely was some back-room discussion about this — maybe even a handshake deal about what Butler could look forward to next if she serves only an "interim" 15 months in the Senate. And within weeks, Butler made it publicly known that she would not run for a full term in 2024.
"I've spent the past 16 days pursuing my clarity — what kind of life I want to have, what kind of service I want to offer and what kind of voice I want to bring forward," she said in a statement at the time. "After considering those questions, I've decided not to run for Senate in the upcoming election."
This was, of course, a relief to the front-runners in the race for Feinstein's seat, Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, as well as to Lee — and since then, Lee has been catching up, with Schiff maintaining a polling lead, and Porter, Lee, and Republican Steve Garvey almost in a dead heat for second.
But why, really, would a person decide so quickly to forgo being an incumbent for a senate seat, and the chance to wield such major influence in the highest legislative chamber?
Butler wouldn't tell us, obviously, if she and Newsom have any handshake deal, but she tells the Times that while elected office may be in her future, someday, at age 44, with a nine-year-old to raise, she wasn't prepared for the commitment, or invested enough in the office.
"It was clear to me that I could raise the money. It was clear to me that with a lot of work, I could earn the vote of Californians," Butler tells the Times. "The subsequent question had to be, did I want to do it? And I think serving in elected office is a role you have to want and you have to want deeply."
"I knew what I wanted to do was to be a mom to my 9-year-old," Butler continues. "What I wanted to do was to continue to be a loud and clear voice on things that I know, communities that I identify with and care about. I say to my daughter all the time, 'There are no nevers.' And so I don’t close the door on serving in elected office in the future; I just know that it’s not my opportunity at this moment."
Butler had been serving as president of Emily's List, the powerful fundraising organization for Democratic, pro-choice female candidates for elected office, and she came to the Senate as one of its youngest members at 44. She notes she's one of the only senators who has school-age children, and she's the only Black woman in the chamber — and only the third ever in U.S. history — as well as being openly gay, which gives her a unique perspective among senators to say the least.
She tells the Times that the greatest use of her time in the Senate is centering the "voices of young people — millennials, Gen Z and generations that are coming after us," and "legislating with those lives in mind."
Top of mind among the issues affecting youth in the country is mental health, Butler says, and she says that youth mental health "is an issue that I want to dedicate some real time and attention to."
Butler also some frustration with slowly things move in Congress, and how ineffective Congress — and particularly the House — has been this year.
"I have seen so much happen across the country, in communities and cities and counties and states where the decisions of Washington actually go to get implemented," Butler tells the Times. "It starts with, what is this body able to accomplish? Those states and counties and cities [that need it most] don’t have the resources or the policy frameworks to really drive or execute their work without members in the Senate and in the House."
It will be interesting to see how or if Butler's work in the Senate impacts the 2024 election for this junior senate seat. And we still don't know if she, or Newsom, will be offering an endorsement. The candidates will be facing a primary on March 5, and the top two vote-getters will go to the November ballot. Democrats are hoping both will Dems, but there remains a possibility that the Trump-agnostic Garvey will slip in and take second, running against Schiff, and ruining California's chance to elect another woman to the white-male-majority Senate.
This will be the first open election, with no incumbent in the race, for this California senate seat since 1982.
Top image: U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA) participates in a Rules Committee hearing at the Russell Senate Office Building on November 14, 2023 in Washington, DC. The Rules Committee voted to change the rules of the Senate to end Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) months-long blockade of military nominees. (Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)