The Butler Did It
In appointing Laphonza Butler to take Dianne Feinstein’s still-warm U.S. Senate seat, Gov. Gavin Newsom has picked his twin, someone of Cirque-du-Soleil-level flexible morality and connections to wealthy donors on all sides of most issues. In that regard, at least, she’s a perfect representative of California politics.
She is “simply the best person that I could find for this moment in this job,” Newsom said in appointing Butler. He meant to spotlight the fact that she’s black, a lesbian and – as president of EMILY’s List, a political action committee aimed at getting pro-abortion women elected to office – an activist on an issue important to Newsom.
Others don’t think so. The Congressional Black Caucus argued in favor of appointing U.S. Senate candidate Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). Lee, they asserted, is the only Senate candidate with the courage to “tirelessly advance the progressive agenda.”
But choosing Lee – or representatives Katie Porter (D-Irvine) or Adam Schiff (D-Los Angeles), Lee’s opponents in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate – would have violated Newsom’s promise to choose a mere caretaker, someone who would finish Feinstein’s term and then surrender gracefully to the winner of California’s 2024 U.S. Senate campaign.
“I don’t want to get involved in the primary,” Newsom said after Feinstein’s death. “It would be completely unfair to the Democrats that have worked their tail off. That primary is just a matter of months away. I don’t want to tip the balance of that.”
Then too there’s the question of residency. Butler has been living in Maryland, where she was still registered to vote on Monday.
“Out of 40 million California residents, Gavin Newsom seriously couldn’t find one to serve in the Senate?” Republican Assembly leader James Gallagher asked. “Californians deserve real representation, not a political favor for a well-connected campaign operative who doesn’t even live here.”
But critics miss this point: Butler is perfect for Newsom and for California. Both have mastered the art of serving two masters – the state’s powerful unions and its Silicon Valley tech billionaires.
A Mississippi native, Butler made her name as a progressive union leader, organizing in Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. She came to California in 2009, where she organized caregivers and in-home nurses. Beginning in 2013, she led the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), earning the top job at SEIU Local 2015, the largest California union, until her departure in late 2018.
But here’s the money shot: in 2019, Butler joined SCRB Strategies (now Bearstar Strategies) and jumped into the world of political consulting. Uber immediately picked her up as an advisor and union liaison during that company’s fight to kill AB 5.
Backed by SEIU, AB 5, colloquially called the Gig Worker Bill, sought to force freelancers into full-employment – a direct attack on the business model of such companies as Uber, Lyft and DoorDash. By increasing the number of employees at companies that depended on freelance drivers, union leaders hoped to make it easier to compel drivers to join unions.
Hiring Butler – a labor leader fighting against labor unions – was what Hollywood would call a “brave” performance. Uber paid Bearstar $185,000 for Butler’s services from 2019 through 2020. In that role, the former SEIU champion turned against her union comrades to advise the transportation giant.
“It was a massive betrayal,” says one union insider. “She sat in the room fighting for Uber, not for labor.”
Like Butler herself, Bearstar works all sides. It boasts an all-star list of past political clients, including former Governor Jerry Brown, who appointed Butler to the University of California Board of Regents in 2018. Newsom was a Bearstar client, and so was 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
That may partly explain why Butler, while working to support Uber’s campaign to kill AB 5, was also working for the feckless Harris for President campaign. In a moment that may have created uncomfortable conversations in the campaign kitchen, Harris backed AB 5, promising, if elected, to plug AB 5 into federal labor regulation.
But Harris’s benighted presidential campaign wasn’t Harris and Butler’s first meeting. A decade before, Butler helped Harris in her 2010 run for attorney general by keeping SEIU from endorsing several other Democrats in the race. Butler’s influence over the union vote played a crucial role in Harris’s narrow victory.
Harris’s rise to California attorney general provided the springboard for Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign, an effort so dysfunctional that, when her campaign imploded in early 2020, black voters were more likely to vote for Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders and occasionally Elizabeth Warren than to vote for Harris. Biden inexplicably rescued Harris from ignominy when he tapped her for the VP role.
With Laphonza Butler, there would be no President Harris in 2020; without Butler, it’s possible there might not have been a Vice President Harris.
There’s another interesting connection: Butler’s consulting role at Uber brought her close to Tony West, Harris’s brother-in-law. A former Obama administration senior official, West was Uber’s chief legal officer and corporate secretary during the AB 5 fight. West and Butler helped manage Uber’s successful ballot initiative to exempt big-tech companies from AB 5. Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others spent over $200 million on the ballot initiative; Uber paid West over $12 million in 2020.
When Newsom appointed her, Butler might have made the best of her weird resume. She might have pointed out that she was able to make deals among powerful interest groups that don’t always get along. Instead, she flipped again, claiming to be a union activist.
Butler will fill Feinstein’s seat until November 2024. And remember Newsom’s promise that, in nominating an outsider, he would let the three current Senate candidates – Schiff, Porter and Lee – battle for votes? Displaying yet again his transient loyalty to truth, Newsom now says he won’t demand that she sit out the campaign. Butler has said nothing, neither confirming nor denying her interest in keeping the Senate seat beyond 2024. Though Butler lives in Maryland, that’s the sort of flexibility for which California politicians have become famous.
Chris LaBella is a Research Fellow at California Policy Center, and a graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara.