Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.), whom Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed last year to fill the seat of the late Dianne Feinstein, has been in Congress for just over 100 days. Ahead of her first formal speech on the Senate floor Wednesday, she spoke with The Times about what she hopes to accomplish before she leaves office early next year.
Butler, who has said she will not run for reelection, discussed the 2024 presidential race, why she has not called for a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, California’s waning power in Congress and what her political future might look like after she leaves the Senate.
This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You are one junior senator in a body of 100 in a larger branch of government with over 500 lawmakers. In Congress, it is very hard for even a group of people to accomplish anything. What do you think you can realistically accomplish in your term as a single lawmaker?
I appreciate the reality of the frame that you’re offering and I am not naive to that reality. The goal will always be to pass meaningful legislation and I am realistic about the time frame that I have to execute that. But if what I can do is to create a model for my colleagues to elevate the conversation to center around governing for those who will be charged with leading our democracy forward, then I think that will be meaningful. If I can elevate, if not pass legislation, if I can elevate the conversation, to me, that will be meaningful.
Are you working across the aisle to make any of this happen? If so, whom are you working with?
I am looking forward to working with colleagues from across the aisle. I have had conversations with many of them, from Sen. Katie Britt from Alabama about issues of mental health to Sen. [Marsha] Blackburn from Tennessee about the crisis facing foster youth. There’s, I think, an opportunity to really do some meaningful work across the aisle and we’ve got to be urgent about it.
Something your party has been homing in on on the campaign trail is voting rights and reproductive rights. Are you interested in making strides on that at all? If so, what have you done, what can you do and what will you do?
I am, and you know, it’s one of the reasons why I asked [Senate Majority Leader Charles E.] Schumer to remain a part of the Judiciary Committee. If we’re going to really face the future of our democracy, it’s got to be one that advances the ideals of our democracy: one person, one vote; protecting a free and independent press, making sure that the freedoms and wants we thought once protected in our Constitution are restored.
It is the critical element of restoring the confidence in young people that the government can work on their behalf. I chair the subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee, and so continuing to elevate these issues and conversation through hearings and other convenings, is going to be an incredibly important way to keep these issues of democracy and freedom front and center.
Is there anything beyond passing legislation that you can do as a senator?
The incredible power of a lawmaker and particularly of the U.S. senator is the power of the bully pulpit and the power to convene. The opportunities that we have to deepen conversation and to elevate the narrative of change that is necessary, I think, are both incredibly powerful tools. And to be able to utilize this platform and this bully pulpit to have those conversations with people who may not have seen themselves included or have in the past been excluded, is one of the tools that we will have to deploy in this short period of time that we are going to be in the Senate.
Is there something about Washington that you were not aware of before coming here or something about it you want Californians to know?
I think the beautiful thing about California is the diversity of our state. We are, you know, the largest community of X, fill in the blank, outside of Y, fill in the blank. That is true for the largest community of Palestinians outside of Palestine. The largest community of Armenians outside of Armenia. The largest community of Chinese outside of China. The largest community of Jewish people outside of Israel. And the beauty of living in and experiencing that beauty and that diversity.
I think what I would say to Californians is, don’t let anybody make that a weakness. We have to continue to amplify what makes our country and our state special. And that together is how we have to choose to solve our biggest challenges.
California is a real demonstration of the journey between [Proposition] 187 and the passage of legislation in Sacramento to include undocumented [people] in healthcare coverage. And so I think that it is a beautiful journey. I think it really honors who we are as Californians [and] is a great example of who we have been and can be as as Americans. And to me, that is the part of the story that I wanted to tell the rest of the country.
Do you think the loss of seniority in Congress with the passing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the ouster of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has or will translate into any gains or losses for Californians?
California is the world’s fifth-largest economy and is a state of 40 million Americans. It is not a place that can be lightly considered. And when you have an icon such as Dianne Feinstein who you know has served for more than 30 years in an institution that values seniority, of course, that is something that we have to work through.
Both myself and Sen. Alex Padilla are newer by way of seniority and our congressional colleagues also have both a mix of tenure as well in their service. But what powers us are the people of California. What keeps us relevant in engaging across many different policy areas is the scope and scale that is our state. And so we’ve got to continue to advance that and lead with that as the delegation restores its seniority.
What do you make of the polling that shows President Biden is trailing former President Trump if they face off in an election? Is it an omen of what could come? Do you think it’s too early to say?
Yes, it is early. Yes. Polls are a snapshot in time and America — the American people — are whole people. They lead whole lives and they need us as a government and elected officials to really speak to and address not only the challenges that they are facing today, but offer a vision for what it is that we’re going to do to make those things better.
Why haven’t you called for a cease-fire in Gaza? Do you think it’s meaningful for a senator to call for a cease-fire or not?
I don’t want my voice to ever be utilized in dehumanizing any California or American. We can both acknowledge that the the atrocities of Oct. 7 were horrible and that Israel has a right to defend itself while we honor the humanity of the innocent Palestinian lives that are being used as a political pawn by a terrorist organization [Hamas]. And so for me, I want to use my time, energy and attention to ensure that we are advocating for a permanent solution. And I don’t want to continue the language that further divides our party, our communities or our country.
What language is the dehumanizing language?
To some, that is the cease-fire language and to some [it] is other words and phrases that have been sort of utilized in this context. To me, I want to focus on what is the solution that we can implement now and in the future, to accomplish both goals.
Whom are you going to endorse for the California Senate race?
The answer is [none] of the above. The answer is doing the work of the 40 million Californians while I have the responsibility to do it.
Do you plan to run for any public office either in California or elsewhere once you are done in the Senate?
I hope I live a long life of public service and I tell my daughter to never say never. And so that’s how I answer that question. I never say never, and I have no idea what I’m doing after this.