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Sen. Laphonza Butler Is an Expert in Labor Issues. But What About Climate?

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An African American woman stands at a podium wearing a full black jumpsuit with a s sign behind her that reads "EMILY's List The Collective Power of Women."
President of EMILY’s List, Laphonza Butler speaks onstage at the EMILY's List Oscars Week Discussion on March 22, 2022 in Los Angeles.  (Araya Doheny/Getty Images for EMILY's List)

Organizations across California came out of the woodwork to praise Laphonza Butler as she ascended to the U.S. Senate this week, touting her long record on progressive issues and fighting for working class people.

But as the newly sworn-in senator begins her tenure, environmentalists in California are wondering what her appointment means for climate action in this state.

Butler’s background is cemented in labor issues, having served as president of California’s SEIU for more than a decade. She’s also a well-known political strategist and a champion of abortion rights, most recently serving as president of EMILY’s List.

But Butler has never held elected office and has virtually no experience with climate policy.

“The governor did not appoint somebody who has a long track record on these issues, and I think that raises some questions in the community,” said democratic strategist Steve Maviglio.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has made the issue fundamental to his time in office. Most recently, California filed a lawsuit against major oil companies claiming they deceived the public for decades on climate. And he committed to sign landmark legislation that would require billion-dollar corporations working in California to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.

At the helm of a state that has become the poster child of climate change disasters, Newsom’s choice to appoint Butler surprised environmental activists.

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“It was totally out of the box,” Maviglio said. “She was not on anybody’s short list.”

Butler now represents about 40 million Californians in one of the most powerful lawmaking positions in the country. She will be tasked with promoting climate change mitigation on the national stage, as well as voting on water policy, wildfire mitigation strategies and plans for handling drought, among other issues.

She’s also stepping in on the heels of the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein who, over her many decades in office, played a significant role in shaping environmental legislation, including protecting millions of acres of California deserts and regulating oil drilling off the state’s Pacific coast and pollution from cars.

Meanwhile, Butler’s political career has so far been rooted primarily in labor issues. During her tenure at SEIU 2015, the labor union was peripherally involved in clean energy bills, including SB 100, which set a target of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045. Unlike other private sector unions at the time, SEIU also showed support for fossil fuel divestment legislation, like SB 185. However, SEIU declined to say whether Butler was involved directly in those efforts.

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“[Environmental justice] was important to Laphonza because we represented women of color and low-wage workers living in areas where the air isn’t the best, the water isn’t the best,” said current SEIU 2015 executive vice president Carmen Roberts. “So that was certainly one of our justice agenda items.”

Numerous environmental groups released statements in the aftermath of Butler’s appointment, including California Environmental Voters, whose political and organizing director Mike Young called her a “known advocate” and said the group looked “forward to working with her on the progressive values she’s represented throughout her career.”

But none of the statements from California-based environmental groups, including EnviroVoters, said anything about Butler’s environmental achievements. None agreed to an interview with KQED, either, saying they couldn’t speak to her climate record.

Her appointment could set up her now-counterpart, Sen. Alex Padilla, to be the more active member of the California delegation in the Senate on climate change. Prior to his time in office, Padilla served for six years as chair of California’s Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Communications, where he led efforts on renewable energy and climate policies. As a senator, he co-sponsored the Green New Deal and now serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee.

But Democratic strategist Maviglio — who worked with Butler during her time at SEIU — isn’t counting her out.

“She may emerge as a[n environmental] leader because she knows how important it is to California and to the governor,” he said.

And in fact, he said, she could bring a fresh perspective to the issue.

“She’s fought all her life for poor people and people living in urban areas, and I think more and more we see how climate is affecting those very same constituencies,” he said. “So I think you’ll see her rise up, particularly on environmental justice issues, and be an outspoken force for those in the Senate.”

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