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Labor forged Laphonza Butler. Could unions ‘sling-shot’ her Senate bid?

Vice President Kamala Harris, right, swears in Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., left, to the Senate to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a re-enactment of the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Butler's wife, Neneki Lee, center, holds the Bible.
Stephanie Scarbrough
Vice President Kamala Harris, right, swears in Laphonza Butler, D-Calif., left, to the Senate to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein during a re-enactment of the swearing-in ceremony on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2023, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Butler's wife, Neneki Lee, center, holds the Bible.

Update: The National Union of Healthcare Workers announced Oct. 11 it has endorsed Rep. Katie Porter.

Cheers and laughter erupted as Rep. Barbara Lee pitched a $50 per hour federal minimum wage during a labor-hosted U.S. Senate candidate forum Sunday in Los Angeles.

Fellow Democrats and primary opponents, Reps. Adam Schiff and Katie Porter supported half that, but still far more than the current $7.25 an hour, with Schiff advocating for $25, and Porter a $20 federal rate and a $25 in California, indexed to inflation.


The three were trying to woo 350 delegates of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who will vote by Tuesday on whether, or who, to endorse in the March 5 primary.

But the person of the moment in California politics wasn’t in the room: Brand-new U.S. Sen. Laphonza Butler, who took office last week after Gov. Gavin Newsom tapped her to replace the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Butler won’t say yet if she will vie for a full six-year term next year, or in the simultaneous special election for the final two months of Feinstein’s term.

When asked Sunday if Butler should run, Lee, Porter and Schiff briefly congratulated the new senator. They said they looked forward to her tenure, but said that they were focused on winning the race and suggested they can do the job better.

But if Butler, a former labor leader, decides to run, she could have the inside track to securing a formidable ally in some of California’s historically powerful labor unions. And that could shift the dynamics in the already heated March primary, in which three big-name Democrats have already been campaigning for months.


Butler’s decision is one that some powerful groups in California are willing to wait for before deciding their endorsements.

The Service Employees International Union, with 700,000 members in California, and the 2-million-member California Labor Federation are closely watching Butler’s choice, according to union officials. The federation won’t make an endorsement until its Dec. 5 statewide convention — three days before the candidate filing deadline. And Oscar Lopez, political director of SEIU California, said members deserve the opportunity to hear from Butler first. 

“I would imagine that Sen. Butler would decide … in short order,” said Arnulfo De La Cruz, president of SEIU Local 2015, a chapter that represents long-term caregivers, that Butler used to lead and that holds its annual convention Nov. 6-7. “We definitely don’t want to move forward without being able to capture potentially what could be the full list of candidates.”

Already, the primary field is crowded with the three labor-friendly Democrats, whose policy takes on worker issues are barely different from one another. “We have an embarrassment of riches here,” Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, leader of the California Labor Federation, said at its May candidate forum.

Butler, however, would be the only candidate to have lived and breathed union organizing. The longtime political consultant served as the president of both the SEIU California State Council — the political coordination arm of the union — and SEIU Local 2015.

Still, to mount a competitive campaign in the five months before the March 5 primary, Butler would have to quickly tap into her labor background for the millions of potential voters and millions more in campaign contributions labor has to offer.

She would face a series of challenges: The lack of name recognition, delays in fundraising, and her stint representing Uber against gig workers in 2019 that drew criticism from liberal organizations and commentators.

“She needs something to sling-shot her campaign if she ran,” said Wesley Hussey, professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento.

Labor support is already split, however: Schiff has received endorsements from a handful of statewide unions representing firefighters, operating engineers and electric, construction and transit workers, as well as local chapters. Tuesday, the California Teamsters, representing 220,000 workers, endorsed him. Lee and Porter also have the backing from union chapters within their districts. On Friday, Lee joined SEIU-UHW workers on their picket line against Kaiser Permanente.

Unions that have already endorsed likely won’t change course because they tend to “place their bets on horses that they have relied on in the past, that they feel have the best chance,” said Kim Nalder, professor of political science at California State University, Sacramento.

During the Sunday forum, Lee, Porter and Schiff repeatedly pledged not to take corporate campaign donations and vowed to crack down on corporate interests. Meanwhile, they touted their support for union jobs and labor-friendly policies. All three disagreed with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s veto of legislation last week that would have allowed striking workers to claim unemployment benefits.

Butler represented both corporations and labor. When asked whether Butler’s track record is “disqualifying,” none of the three Democrats offered a definitive answer, instead acknowledging that the voting record of any candidate should be scrutinized. But Butler, now in office, has a chance to “show Californians where she stands on this issue,” Porter said. “I think it’s important that we expect her to listen to all of her better angels on labor.”

With Sunday’s forum, which starts the National Union of Healthcare Workers’ endorsement process, the pool of undecided labor unions is shrinking.

Sal Rosselli, president of the healthcare workers union, told CalMatters on Thursday that Butler did not return his personal text or a separate invitation to appear at the forum. Because she didn’t announce her campaign by noon Sunday, she isn’t eligible for the endorsement. Members will have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to vote on the endorsement, which will be announced on Wednesday, Rosselli said.

“We are not going to delay it,” he said.

Butler’s spokesperson said she planned to be in Washington, D.C., during the event. She declined a CalMatters request for an interview last week, with the spokesperson repeating: “Politics can wait.”

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which represents roughly 100,000 workers in California — plans to host a Oct. 15 forum featuring Lee, Porter and Schiff. It is unclear whether Butler has been asked, or is scheduled, to join.

‘Un-elected political insider’

While never having held elected office, Butler is an “un-elected political insider,” said Thad Kousser, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego.

While leading SEIU in California, Butler was instrumental in the 2015 negotiations to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour — then the highest in the nation. The union threatened to mount a pricey ballot initiative campaign, eventually forcing then-Gov. Jerry Brown and state lawmakers to enact legislation that means the statewide minimum wage will rise to $16 an hour in January.

Butler also advised Vice President Kamala Harris’ 2020 presidential campaign before becoming the president of EMILYs List in September 2021, helping the organization elect female Democrats advocating for abortion rights.

On Friday, Butler attended a previously scheduled fundraising luncheon for EMILYs List in New York. “I decided I wouldn’t let myself down by choosing to miss another opportunity to serve at my greatest potential,” Butler told the crowd, Politico reported. “To lead and deliver at my highest impact. To raise my voice to its highest volume on behalf of creating a better, stronger, more equitable future.”

While EMILYs List doesn’t plan to endorse in the Senate race until after the primary, Butler’s ties to the organization give her access to a “huge donor network,” said Hussey. Paired with grassroots support from labor unions, it could be “a strong combination” for fundraising, Hussey said.

SEIU California — where Butler used to be president — will gather input from union members and decide in the coming weeks who to endorse in the U.S. Senate race, De La Cruz of SEIU Local 2015 said.

De La Cruz, who used to work with Butler, praised the newly-appointed senator’s pro-labor record. “She has an uncanny ability to bring people from all different walks of life together,” he said.

But ultimately, he said his chapter will consider candidates’ track record on issues such as climate, immigration and benefits for caretaking workers, as well as their ability to raise money.

Gonzalez Fletcher acknowledged Friday that Butler’s track record in organizing “matters a lot.” But to win the labor federation endorsement, a candidate must secure at least two-thirds of delegate votes at the Dec. 5 convention, she said.

“Obviously, Senator Butler did come from organized labor. That definitely is something that is on her resume that isn’t on others,” she told CalMatters.

“But I think in the end, there’s a lot of questions about who would be the most effective, who would fight the hardest, who would push the most, who would be able to have that direct connection with our members.”

Starting late, but a leg up?

Compared to the three other Democrats, Butler would have several advantages, said Kent Wong, director of the University of California Los Angeles Labor Center.

She could receive a boost in name recognition as the first Black and openly lesbian person to serve in the Senate, and the 44-year-old would appeal to voters who were frustrated at Feinstein, who did not announce she would give up her seat until she was 89, he argued.

“In a short period of time, she will become a household name in the state of California,” Wong said.

Butler also does not have the “political baggage” Lee, Porter and Schiff have as members of Congress, Nalder said.

But time is running out on Butler to assemble a campaign staff and start raising money. Schiff, who reported last week he had a whopping $32 million in cash on hand, could boost his fundraising even more as he can now collect twice as much from each donor with the special election.

Even with a background in organized labor, it would take time for established Democratic donors to warm up to Butler or for her to build up grassroots support, Nalder said.

“The traditional political donor organizations and individuals won’t have had her on their radar until a minute ago,” she added. “Labor unions are helpful, but you need some big donors or lots of small donors, and California isn’t a state where you can do retail politics and knock on doors and do town halls and get elected to the U.S. Senate.”

Besides, labor unions are already in a good position, Hussey said.

“Labor is going to … get what they want for the most part with these candidates,” he said. “I think she needs labor more than them (needing her).”