New California Sen. Laphonza Butler a cipher on Israel, other Jewish issues

The newly appointed senator’s views are largely a mystery to local and national Jewish groups, and her positions on Middle East policy are unknown even to Gov. Gavin Newsom

Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA), the former EMILY’s List president, labor leader and advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris appointed to fill the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) Senate this week, is  a largely unknown entity to the state’s organized Jewish community, and her positions on issues of interest to the community are a mystery.

Jewish organizational officials up and down the state, including the leaders in the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council and Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California told Jewish Insider this week that they’ve had little or no interaction with Butler in her previous roles.

“We have not yet had the opportunity to engage with the new senator but look forward to discussing issues that should concern all Americans, including countering rising levels of antisemitism and hate; strengthening democratic values and the institutions that anchor our society; and advancing normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors,” Richard Hirschhaut, the AJC’s Los Angeles regional director, told JI. “We are eager to hear Senator Butler’s perspectives, based upon her own lens of experience, on how best to move the needle on these and other front-burner issues.”

Hirschhaut added that the situation provides “an opportunity to engage, to educate, to have a genuinely open, constructive and honest exchange of views and learn from one another.”

Butler could not be reached for comment; a call to her office went unanswered and her Senate office was locked when JI visited in person on Wednesday.

Butler’s views on Middle East policy are also apparently unknown to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed Butler to the post, according to a source familiar with the governor’s thinking.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 04: Newly appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA) attends a news conference after attending her first Senate Democratic policy luncheon at the U.S. Capitol on October 04, 2023 in Washington, DC.

The source, who spoke to Newsom about the appointment, said that Middle East policy did not come up in her vetting process, but that — based on their long relationship — Newsom expects that she’ll be an ally to the pro-Israel community.

Zev Yaroslavsky, the former chair of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, who worked with Butler, 44, during her time in labor organizing, shared a similar view.

“I know her well and worked with her on labor-related issues a decade ago. I’ve stayed in touch with her in the ensuing years, but I’ve never had occasion to discuss Israel or Jewish community issues,” Yaroslavsky told JI. “Nothing in our conversations would give me any reason to believe there are any issues there. She is a coalition builder.”

Butler is likewise a stranger to national pro-Israel groups. AIPAC spokesperson Marshall Wittman told JI that he was unfamiliar with Butler’s approach to Israel, and another pro-Israel strategist said that they were not aware of any statements Butler had made on the U.S.-Israel relationship.

Her tenure at EMILY’s List also reveals little about how she might approach Jewish community issues in the Senate. EMILY’s List has found itself both in sync with, and at odds with, pro-Israel groups electorally. The group endorses Democratic women who support abortion rights.

EMILY’s List endorsed candidates like Rep. Summer Lee (D-PA) and former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), both of whom were vehemently opposed by pro-Israel groups; on the other hand, AIPAC’s super PAC, the United Democracy Project, donated $200,000 to an EMILY’s List-affiliated super PAC to back a candidate in the recent Rhode Island congressional special election.

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 3: Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA) (L) smiles with her wife, Neneki Lee after she is sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris (R) in the Old Senate Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on October 3, 2023 in Washington DC.

One former EMILY’s List staffer who overlapped with Butler and requested anonymity to speak candidly, told JI that they expect Butler to be “very progressive” but that they “cannot imagine” she’ll join the ranks of anti-Israel Democrats; the former staffer said that Israel never came up during conversations at EMILY’s List.

They said that Butler’s tenure at EMILY’s List was not without its issues. They described a difficult transition for Butler, whose background was not in fundraising, and clashing management styles. Butler took over EMILY’s List in 2021.

“She’s like a negotiator. She hates middle men. She wants to do all the talking, and she wants to work with people and make a deal, and this is not how EMILY’s List works,” they said.

They added, “Because [Butler] didn’t have a fundraising background, I think it hurt the organization.”

The staffer also said Butler found herself in conflict with staff and EMILY’s List donors over costly efforts to rebrand the group as a part of the progressive movement, rather than focusing solely on supporting Democratic women and abortion rights. The issue of prioritizing left-wing ideology became an issue when the group decided to withdraw its endorsement of Sen. Kryrsten Sinema (I-AZ), prompting some major donors to abandon the group.

“Our issue is supposed to be abortion rights. When that decision came down a lot of donors abandoned EMILY’s List,” the staffer said. “They were trying to become a progressive organization instead of a women’s organization.”

Butler’s tenure also ended on a sour note with recent layoffs; staffers also said they learned about her departure from the organization on social media, according to the former staffer who spoke to JI.

“Laphonza Butler is a groundbreaking leader who has done terrific work in her two years leading EMILYs List. While we will miss her at the helm, we couldn’t be prouder to see her sworn in as California’s newest senator,” EMILY’s List Board Chair Rebecca Haile said in a press release about the appointment. “At EMILYs List, Laphonza has added to the organization’s powerful legacy and left us in a strong position to continue the work we’ve done for nearly 40 years, helping Democratic pro-choice women run, win, and change the world.” 

Jewish Insider’s features reporter Matthew Kassel contributed reporting.

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