Airbnb and Emily’s List alum Laphonza Butler is California’s newest senator following the death of longtime leader Dianne Feinstein.
Butler appeared at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Monday, in her first public appearance since taking the Senate seat.
Butler told Emma Hinchliffe, senior writer, about her plans for California—and avoided questions about the 2024 Senate race.
Watch the video above or read the full transcript below.
Ellie Austin: I’m very honored to have with us this evening, the newest member of the United States Senate. As you all know, Senator Laphonza Butler was sworn in just last week to fill the seat left by Dianne Feinstein, the late Dianne Feinstein now, Senator Butler obviously has very big shoes to fill, but she comes with an incredibly impressive resume reflecting her experience serving the people of California to name a few of her treatments. She has a long history in working in the state’s politics. She’s a well-known strategist in high stakes campaigns. She led California’s largest labor union for over a decade. And recently she served as president of Emily’s List, an organization that works to support pro-choice Democratic women candidates. And with her appointment to the US Senate, she’s making history because Senator Butler is the first openly lesbian Black senator to serve in Congress. And she is also the only Black woman currently serving in the Senate. Senator Butler joins us tonight for a conversation with Fortune’s Emma Hinchliffe
Emma Hinchliffe: Hello, Senator, thank you so much for being here with us.
Laphonza Butler: Good evening Fortune.
Emma Hinchliffe: So last time you were with us at an MPW event, which was not that long ago, you were the president of Emily’s List working to elect Democratic women. Today you’re here as a US senator. Was this on your vision board?
Laphonza Butler: Not on my vision board not on my bingo card. Not in the wildest dreams of my ancestors. Did I ever believe that I will be the third Black woman to serve in the United States.
Emma Hinchliffe: So, Senator, can you walk us through the past week? When did you get the call? Did you see it coming? Did you consider saying no.
Laphonza Butler: I don’t believe that anybody could imagine what the last six days of my life have been like I got the call on a Saturday, I was doing my work for Emily’s List at the home of one of our supporters and community members in Colorado and the governor called on that Saturday. You all might recall at that time, just last weekend, we were facing an imminent government shutdown. And the governor did not have a whole lot of time for me to think through and call, there were no phone a friend option. And, but I was able to speak to my wife and we were honored to be asked to serve in the seat that Dianne Feinstein held. When you think about what she offered to this country for women in leadership, whether in public office or in business, raising her hand to lead in a time of crisis. It’s not something that you say no to. So as much as I have enjoyed immensely my work at Emily’s List. It was an opportunity for me to again raise my hand at a moment of crisis for our country. I do not liken it myself to Senator Feinstein. But it was a moment that I was that was put in front of me to lead and my family. We chose to raise our hand.
Emma Hinchliffe: Yeah. You know, let’s talk about Senator Feinstein’s legacy. What parts of it are you know, most focused on what’s on your mind as you step into this role? What do you want to bring forward with you?
Laphonza Butler: Look, if I try to measure my service to Senator Feinstein’s I fail. There is so much that she has brought to California into the country. People don’t know that the Amber Alert is Senator Dianne Feinstein. Right. So, the ways in which she has always thought about the safety and security of our communities, the future for young people, whether it’s through transportation or through her commitment to water, the water crisis in our state, and the environment, her creation and in constant fight for our federal parks Joshua Tree, like all of that, is Senator Dianne Feinstein. And so, I am not so audacious as to believe that I will be able to contribute as much as the senator did in her decades of service. My life has always been an example for women and girls and their economic empowerment. And I want to continue that, whether as a labor leader fighting for higher wages and raising them helping to raise the minimum wage and get sick days and pay time off for caregivers in this in this state who didn’t have it as of 2016. Or working at the work of doing the workout of Emily’s List or my time at Airbnb, I feel like I have had the opportunity to serve the economic empowerment of women, the political power of women. And this is another opportunity for me to do that. And to do within the spirit of Senator Feinstein.
Emma Hinchliffe: Amazing. Well, you know, as we heard, you are only the third Black woman to ever serve in the Senate and the first openly gay Black woman to serve in the Senate. What do those milestones mean to you personally? How do you feel about them?
Laphonza Butler: Here it is, I only know how to be a Black woman.I don’t know how to be anything else. And so, I don’t know how to lead any other way. And so, I think what those milestones really mean for me, hopefully serve as an example, for other Black women, other lesbians, others who just want to live their life their own way. When I hope it means and offers a little bit of semblance of is just do you?
Emma Hinchliffe: Totally and relatedly not just the first you are also currently and only the only Black woman in the US Senate right now. There’s also the Vice President, but you’re the only senator. You know, what does that feel like for you as you step on to the Senate floor?
Laphonza Butler: I can’t say the same thing I said before can I ? It is it is not lost on me that there was Carol Moseley Braun, there was Kamala Harris. And now there’s Laphonza Butler. You know, I was sworn in. I was sworn in just last Tuesday, and my mother celebrated her 70th birthday this year. And that in August, and I thought I was doing a big deal like taking her on our first mother daughter only I have two older brothers. Our first mother daughter trip just the two of us. We’re going to like to knock these 70 things out mom. And then I got to see her in the state capital, in the US Capitol for the first time in her entire life. I got to see her with Senator Cory Booker. I got to see her with Congresswoman Lauren Underwood. I like to call it, you’re living your best MSNBC life girl.
And we all like I grew up in a small town in Mississippi, I went to a historically Black college. I never thought that the day that I would recognize and see pride in my mother’s eyes would be when she was walking up to shake the hands of the vice president who was swearing her daughter her youngest child in as the third Black woman to serve in this historic chamber and so it means a lot to me. It means a lot to my family, I think. I think it might mean a little bit to my daughter who was only nine and chose to choose to not come to the swearing in because she wanted to go camping
Emma Hinchliffe: Did she have fun?
Laphonza Butler: It was her first time being able to go camping without her parents having to go.
Emma Hinchliffe: And experiencing her first
Laphonza Butler: I know, right? And I said, So Nyla Mama’s got this thing going on. But you can you know; do you want to do this? Or do you want to go camping? And she said” oh, no, I’m going to go camping” I said “well, the Vice President is going to be there” She said, “Well, tell her I said”
Emma Hinchliffe: That’s incredible.
Laphonza Butler: I hope it means something to young girls who maybe are not my daughter, but I hope it is a demonstration of what is possible. And when we can imagine, together and even when we can’t, there’s more possibility for us. So that’s my hope.
Emma Hinchliffe: Well, thank you so much, Senator. So, Dianne Feinstein was 90 years old, you are much younger than that. Are you worried about you know, the aging leadership in politics? And do you think this is the direction that we should be going in?
Laphonza Butler: Which direction?
Emma Hinchliffe: A younger direction?
Laphonza Butler: Well, I, as was mentioned in the earlier talk, I don’t think that we have a choice but to go in a younger direction. But I will say, look, we are at a time, I think where the gift for me is to have been able to learn from Senator Feinstein, the gift from me has been able to see, Speaker Pelosi has magnificent leadership. I think the opportunity for leaders of my generation is, so see how leadership is on display, and to learn all of the tools and sort of tricks of the trade and be able to listen very clearly, to what is being communicated from generations that come after me, I’ve always sort of thought about my, on the cusp of Gen X, millennials sort of nature and real responsibility is to be a transmission bill. And so is every at every turn and every evolution of leadership, there’s always going to be a passing of the baton. At Emily’s List, I was able to receive that baton from Ellen Malcolm, who passed it to Stephanie Schriock, who passed it to me where I was also the first Black woman to serve and the leadership of Emily’s List. And so, is this a direction that we should be going in? Absolutely. We can’t be for representation and inclusion without representation and inclusion. And we should take the opportunity to learn from those who have led before us so that we can do better the next time around.
Emma Hinchliffe: Yeah, you know, so you are joining the US Senate at what could be called a tumultuous time, from the threat of shutdowns to now outbreak of conflict in Israel. You know, what do you feel like you can bring to this moment as you step into this role experience working across the aisle getting things done with just so much happening in our country and in the world?
Laphonza Butler: Yeah, I think it’s a great, great question. I’ve thought about this a lot when the governor reached out to me. And I think that my both the story of California and my experience in it is an offering that I can bring to leadership in this moment, the story of California being one of such great innovation, and hope. And we understand very much the economic inequality that exists in our state. We have some incredible innovations in policy regarding the environment, and electric vehicles, water, transportation, fascinating pathways to the future. And as the symbol of hope in spaces of policy and people and connection, what California has taught me and my work in it has been about how do you, you know, take what is that one of the greatest melting pots in the world and find common ground and build coalition. And I think what young people and, you know, everybody in between senior saints, would have us to believe is that, you know, things are that government is broken, that nobody is talking to each other. The only way that we were able to pass a $15 minimum wage in California was through coalition. It was not just the labor movement, but it was small businesses. It was not just small businesses, but it was nonprofits, and everybody played a role in figuring out what might work for California. And so having had the experiences of trying of burking to build those coalitions to make significant change in one of the most dynamic places and economies in the country and dare I say in the world is an, I think, an asset that I can bring in and we’ll bring to my service in the US and
Emma Hinchliffe: So, is this a temporary job for you?
Laphonza Butler: It is our early job for me. It is day six. I literally went through orientation, which is usually three days in like four hours. And so, I will say it’s an early job for me. But my life has been one that has been dedicated to service and that is my commitment.
Emma Hinchliffe: Well, thank you so much, Senator. Incredible to have you here.