Laphonza Butler’s appointment to the U.S. Senate to replace the late Dianne Feinstein of California will increase the number of Black senators serving at the same time to a record four.
But Black Americans are still woefully underrepresented in Congress.
The number of Black senators would need to at least triple to get to a position where Black Americans are proportionally represented in the chamber, Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, told Capital B.
Butler will be the only Black woman senator in Congress and just the third in the country’s history, after Kamala Harris of California from 2017 to 2021 and Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois from 1993 to 1999. She’ll also be the first out Black lesbian in Congress.
“This just shows how long it’s taking for us to get Black women to the point where they can even launch viable campaigns,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, a visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics. “That has a lot to do with how leadership is viewed in this country — still predominantly white, predominantly male.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office confirmed Butler’s appointment on Sunday. Currently, she’s the president of EMILY’s List, an organization that seeks to elect Democratic women who support abortion access.
The announcement comes after three House Democrats kicked off campaigns earlier this year to succeed Feinstein, who said in February that she wouldn’t seek reelection. This group includes Reps. Barbara Lee, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; Adam Schiff, a former House Intelligence chairman; and Katie Porter, a former deputy chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Though Newsom said last month that he wouldn’t appoint any of the candidates competing for Feinstein’s seat in California’s 2024 U.S. Senate election — tipping the scales “would be completely unfair,” he explained — the CBC urged him on Sunday to pick Lee.
“[Lee] is the only person with the courage, the vision, and the record to eradicate poverty, face down the fossil fuel industry, defend our democracy, and tirelessly advance the progressive agenda,” CBC Chairman Steven Horsford wrote in a letter to Newsom.
The Nevada Democrat detailed Lee’s progressive bona fides.
“From authoring California’s first Violence Against Women Act to casting the lone vote against the Authorized Military Use of Force to saving 25 million people from the scourge of AIDS; from expanding SNAP, to authoring the Rents’ Bill of Rights, and introducing the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act; Congresswoman Barbara Lee is — without question — the best choice for this appointment,” Horsford wrote.
The challenges Black candidates face
Many politics watchers are taking this moment to reflect on the meager state of Black representation in Congress’s upper chamber. Record numbers of Black women ran for and secured major-party Senate nominations in 2022. But none of them won, according to the report Black Women in American Politics 2023.
Peeler-Allen underscored that lots of work must be done to move away from notions of leadership that overemphasize whiteness and maleness.
“The key is to make sure that there are Black women waiting in the wings so that whenever an opportunity presents itself, we have Black women ready to step in and go,” she said. “It’s very disappointing that in our nation’s almost 250-year history, the voices and experiences of Black women haven’t had their due attention in that chamber.”
Gillespie told Capital B that while observers are still trying to figure out the precise reasons for the lack of parity, she’d think about the political elements first: The state that someone runs in — be it Democratic or Republican — matters.
“For folks running in red states, there are going to be challenges there. And those challenges affect any Democratic candidate, regardless of their race or gender,” Gillespie explained. “We have to acknowledge the difficulty of being a candidate for office in a state where Democrats are going to have a hard time running.”
Incumbency also plays a role.
“One of the things that hurt Val Demings is that she ran against an incumbent. That’s a tall order,” Gillespie said, referring to Demings’ loss to Republican Marco Rubio in Florida’s 2022 U.S. Senate election. “Incumbency certainly helps, and they tend to skew male, so we have to ask ourselves about the disadvantages that Black women face when running statewide.”
In an interview with Capital B in 2022, Butler mentioned her own concerns about the state of Black representation in politics.
“Women of color have faced barriers in terms of fundraising,” she said. “We have to be an organization that is dedicated not just to equality in terms of how we support our candidates, but dedicated to equity. Our candidates don’t all start from the same line or network in terms of their access to resources.”