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In a whirlwind first week, newly appointed Sen. Laphonza Butler acts like a candidate

The celebration of a film and television production magnet school in downtown Los Angeles had the feeling of a campaign rally. Celebrities George Clooney and Eva Longoria and politicians including Gov. Gavin Newsom mingled with fans before taking the stage. There in the middle of it all was California’s newest senator, Laphonza Butler.

“Young people, I stand before you as only the third Black woman ever to serve in the United States senate,” Butler said to loud applause. “The quote I always refer to when I am challenged with something that is difficult in front of me that I may not have ever imagined doing — like being a U.S. senator — if your actions inspire others to learn more, do more, dream more and become more, you are a leader.”

Butler was catapulted into the political spotlight at the beginning of October, just days after the death of longtime California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, when Newsom appointed her to fill the senate vacancy. Though Butler’s career has been steeped in politics, she’s a newcomer to serving in public office.

Butler didn’t respond when asked if she planned to run for the seat in the 2024 election. But she certainly looked like a candidate her first full week in office, which coincided with a Senate recess. The former EMILY’s List president capitalized on the opportunity, crisscrossing California, attending events — public and private, big and small — in Orange, Los Angeles and San Francisco counties, among other locales.

On Sunday, three Democratic candidates already in the 2024 race — Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland — said Butler was free to enter the race and that it wouldn’t change their plans. On Tuesday, another senate hopeful — Republican Steve Garvey, a Dodger All-Star — entered the fray.

Still, Butler’s schedule, which was full of meetings with labor and activist groups whose support would be essential to almost any California Senate run, suggested a candidate in waiting, quietly maneuvering for a future campaign — not a caretaker gliding through the final year of Feinstein’s term.

Butler on Friday took the stage alongside celebrities who are deeply involved in Democratic politics.

Clooney, the founder of the magnet program, and board members Longoria, Don Cheadle and Kerry Washington are long-time donors to Democratic politicians and causes, and outspoken liberal advocates. Butler said she she was “fan-girling” as she introduced Cheadle.

Last week, after Butler attended Feinstein’s funeral in San Francisco, she turned her attention to other critical Democratic constituencies with fundraising and organizational prowess.

She met with the executive board of the California Teachers Assn. —a powerful statewide union that represents about 300,000 teachers. On Thursday, she met with the leadership of Planned Parenthood’s California affiliate. On Friday, she met with the board of Equality California, which advocates for the rights of LGBTQ+ people and whose political action committee endorses and raises money for candidates.

This week, she also met with elected officials and union leaders from the politically powerful Service Employees International Union and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.

As she ponders a Senate run, Butler is leaning into her labor roots. The first tweet from her official Senate account planted her firmly on the side of 75,000 Kaiser Permanente workers on strike, building on her early career as an organizer and union president. On Friday, the network of unions representing these workers announced they reached a tentative agreement.

If she were to run, Butler wouldn’t be the only candidate with labor support. Schiff has the backing of seven statewide labor unions, including the recent endorsement of the state’s Teamsters chapter, which has about 200,000 members. This week, Porter picked up a nod from the National Union of Healthcare workers, which represents close to 20,000 healthcare workers in the state.

Butler would need the help of the groups and people she met this week to make up the enormous fundraising advantage both Schiff and Porter posses.

When Butler walked into SEIU 2015’s Westlake headquarters Tuesday, she knew the receptionist’s name and every other staff member in the building, said David Green, president of SEIU Local 721, whose 98,000 members make it the largest public sector union in Southern California.

“She hasn’t forgotten where she came from,” Green said. After running Local 2015 for four years, she worked as a political consultant for Uber and other corporations, then as an AirBnB executive, before joining then-Sen. Kamala Harris’ unsuccessful presidential campaign.

At the meeting this week, Butler told union leaders she appreciated their support and to “keep the lines of communication open.”

For Butler, meeting with SEIU brass in L.A. offers both a trip down memory lane and a signal to her future objectives.

SEIU pours millions of dollars into state elections each cycle, and its 700,000 members in the state — who look to their union’s endorsements to guide their decisions at the ballot box — make it a sizable voting bloc. The union has boosted state Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and bolstered Newsom’s successful effort to ward off the 2021 recall campaign with millions of dollars in cash and field support.

Butler attended a similar gathering Wednesday evening with union members and elected officials at the Potrero Hill headquarters of SEIU 1021 in San Francisco. The day prior she’d reached out to the union’s leadership telling them she’d be in the area. She “wanted to make sure she connected with her siblings,” said SEIU 1021 President Theresa Rutherford.

“It was definitely a point of pride to have one of us be promoted into this high position,” Rutherford added. “We think that augers well for working people.”

At the get-together, San Francisco County Supervisors Myrna Melgar and Connie Chan chatted with the newly appointed Senator, whom they described as disarmingly personable. Melgar described Butler’s personality as a departure from Feinstein’s formal and courtly demeanor.

“I was a big admirer of Dianne, yeah, but what a difference,” said Melgar—who had never met Butler before. “She was able to relate all of these like big structural political issues to her personal life and experience.”

Melgar respects Schiff, Porter and Lee, but she’s eager to back someone who is both younger and a person of color. Butler impressed Melgar, who said if the appointed Senator declares she’d support her.

Both Melgar and Chan said Butler didn’t discuss her plans. Chan, who backs Schiff, said she and Butler hadn’t interacted since she worked as then- San Francisco’s Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris’ liaison to the Asian American community.

“It was a historical moment,” Chan said — particularly because her 10-year old son was by her side.

Still, Chan — like many other politicians who have already endorsed Senate candidates — will have a tough choice to make if Butler jumps in.

“If she does get in, I will cross that bridge,” she said.

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