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Helping Women Win: Catching Up with LaPhonza Butler, First Black President of EMILY’s List 

When she was just 30 years old, more than 400,0000 members of California’s largest labor union, SEIU Local 2015, elected LaPhonza Butler to be their president. Known for her outspoken, straight-shooting style as well as her poise and even temper, Butler has a reputation for being a leader capable of building bridges and driving consensus.

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LaPhonza Butler/ Emily's List

When she was just 30 years old, more than 400,0000 members of California’s largest labor union, SEIU Local 2015, elected LaPhonza Butler to be their president. Known for her outspoken, straight-shooting style as well as her poise and even temper, Butler has a reputation for being a leader capable of building bridges and driving consensus.

As the head of the largest union of health care workers in the country, Butler led the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 in California.

A respected and trusted political strategist, prominent women in California politics have relied on her advice and understanding of the political ground game to get them elected. Among them are Vice President Kamala Harris, Los Angeles County Supervisor Holly Mitchell and state Assemblymember Wendy Carillo (D-Boyle Heights). 

Now, at 42, Butler was recently named the president of EMILY’s List, a move that will take her from Los Angeles to Wash., D.C., to head the organization that bills itself as “the country’s largest resource for women in politics.” 

She is the first African American CEO of the organization that says its mission is “to elect democratic, pro-choice women to office and to add diversity to our political leadership.” 

California Black Media spoke with Butler recently about her vision and top priorities for EMILY’s List, her thoughts on how to assist Black and other women of color who feel unsupported by their political parties, and more.  

CBM: Congrats. How does it feel taking over an organization that has done so much to move the needle for women involved in politics?

BUTLER: I’m very excited. I am only the third president of EMILY’s List in our organization’s 36-year history. It is a real point of pride for sure as well as an incredible responsibility.

When I think about my role at EMILY’s List, I think about my 7-year-old daughter and the kind of community she wants to be a part of, and I see this role as an opportunity to make that possible. 

CBM: What are some of your short-term goals? 

BUTLER: It’s still early. This is just day nine for me, but I can tell you conceptually what I want to accomplish.

I want to build power for women voters and women candidates, ensuring that we are first-in-class as it relates to creating an example of an organization with diversity at its center. I want us to win. 

Immediately, I am focused on making sure that we are able to win in Virginia in 2021.  

We must hold the Democratic majority and grow the number of Democratic pro-choice women that are in the Virginia statehouse. We have fantastic candidate for Lieutenant Governor in Hala Ayala. She will be the first Afro-Latina to hold that office if we are successful. 

Also, there is anti-abortion legislation moving forward in states across the country. We are doing the work to engage the electorate at the state and local levels. It is important for us to push back on restrictions on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions. 

CBM: What’s your longer-term vision? 

BUTLER: Building partners. From working with unions in California, I realize the importance of partnerships, of forming coalitions.  

When we worked to raise the minimum wage, we included small business partners. We included workers. 

What I would like to do with EMILY’s List is to make sure that we are throwing the doors open for every woman – no matter what her financial background may be. If she wants to serve, she can find the resources, training and support that she needs at EMILY’s List.  I want to do that in partnership with organizations like Higher Heights, Emerge, Voto Latino and #VoteProChoice.

CBM: What do you want EMILY’s List to represent for women and girls across America?

BUTLER: I want it to mean that every woman can belong anywhere she chooses and at any decision-making table where she wants to be, assured that her voice will be heard. 

I also want the organization to be able to communicate clearly that whether you are a woman of color, or from a working-class background, or immigrant woman, your place in electoral politics is normal. You’re not a groundbreaker, not a celling breaker. You belong at those tables. 

CBM: What’s your message for men?

BUTLER: I want men to know that they, too, have a place and a role in ensuring that their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and aunts are capable of being strong leaders, not just in their families, but in the halls of government. 

I want men to know that their resources are welcome in supporting organizations like EMILY’s list to help make the dreams their family members’ dreams come true. 

Black women overwhelmingly vote for Democratic candidates. They are leaders and grassroots organizers, and they are the most loyal voting bloc in the party. Yet, Black women candidates often point out that they are not always supported with the levels of enthusiasm, endorsements or funding they deserve. What are your thoughts about this problem?

They are legitimate concerns for Black women, specifically, and women of color, generally. Their voices are the last heard if heard at all. Their experiences are the least valued if valued at all. I can surely appreciate and attest to their leadership. 

As it relates to EMILYs list, I want to hear those concerns and I want to understand them. I want to continue to support Black woman, women of color and all women. 

At the same time, I would invite people to take a look at EMILY’s List and the work we have done to support Black women like U.S. Congresswomen Lucy McBath,  Lauren Underwood or Jahana Hayes. These Black women, who ran and won in majority white districts — white Republican districts.  They all had the support of EMILY’s List. 

The new mayor of St. Louis, Tishaura Jones, for example, has also benefitted from the work of EMILY’s List. 

EMILY’s list has a strong history of being an organization created to diversify women holding elected office. And we can do more to work inside a system that wasn’t built for us. A system that we forced our way into and want to continue to be a part of. 

I’ve heard you say in other interviews ‘when women win, we all win.’ What do you mean? 

What we know about women is that when they go to the ballot box, they carry their whole families. They carry their children, their husbands, their mothers, their fathers. They do not only carry those persons as individuals; they also carry their concerns. I made that statement and I believe that when women are in elected office, the choices that they make are representative of entire communities. That is the way that we lead our families. That is the way we lead our civic organizations and churches. 

CBM: Do you have any advice for women who are interested in running for elected office but don’t know how to get started?

BUTLER: I would say reach out to EMILY’s list if she is looking for a way to get started. We actually have an online community called Run to Win that is made up of tens of thousands of women who are contemplating this very question. Our staff gives them advice and I think the most powerful part is that they give advice to each other based on real-life experiences. 

Even if they have doubts, those women should run anyway. Our Congress and state legislatures are filled with women who didn’t win the first time. 

CBM: You went to an HBCU, Jackson State. Does that experience play a role in shaping who you are as an organizer, visionary and person?

BUTLER: I wouldn’t be who I am today or where I am today but for my experience at Jackson State. My fellow Tigers and the professors that I had who were SNCC or CORE organizers, who may have spent their young adulthoods going to jail fighting to expand the right to vote. They took those experiences and poured them into us in the classroom. They provided the intellectual rigor of higher education and combined it with the civic responsibility to continue to push for better, to fight when there is struggle and to lead when no one else will stand.

It is more than just an institution of higher learning. It is a space where you really do come into the fullness and beauty of all that it means to be a Black person in this nation.

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Activism

Through Ads and Advocates, Battle Over Calif. Gambling Propositions Heat Up

A statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), conducted between Sept. 2 and 11 and released on Sept. 15, revealed that 54% of California voters would vote “no” for Prop 27, while 34% would vote “yes.” Twelve percent of the respondents were “unsure.” The survey’s authors wrote that a strong majority of Republicans wouldn’t vote for the proposition, compared to half of Democrats and independents.

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The dueling propositions have raised a combined $400 million for advertising leading up to Election Day this November.
The dueling propositions have raised a combined $400 million for advertising leading up to Election Day this November.

By McKenzie Jackson | California Black Media

Clint Thompson, a Santa Monica resident in his 30s, wouldn’t say he has been inundated with advertisements supporting or denigrating Propositions 26 and 27, but he sees an ad focused on one of the legislations each time he turns on his television.

“I usually watch the news during the day — NBC — and on NBC, Prop 26 or Prop 27 comes on every other commercial break per show,” said Thompson, an actor, who admitted he hasn’t researched the sports gambling propositions. “Both of the props seem to have good things with them. The commercials seem to have reasons why you should say ‘yes,’ or ‘no.’”

Prop 26 would legalize roulette, dice games, and sports betting on Native American tribal lands if approved by voters in the Nov. 8 election. It is backed by over 50 state Native American tribes.

Prop 27, supported by sportsbooks DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, Fanatics, PENN Entertainment, and WynnBet, would give those sports betting companies the reins in sports gambling in the Golden State and allow online gambling.

If people like Thompson feel the advertisements from the campaigns for and against the propositions seem to be flooding the television and radio airwaves — and to be ever-present on social media (Watched a YouTube video lately?) — they might be right.

The dueling propositions have raised a combined $400 million for advertising leading up to Election Day this November. That has led to ads backing and slamming the two propositions to be front and center in all forms of media Californians consume.

Dinah Bachrach of the Racial Justice Allies of Sonoma County, a group supporting Prop 26, said the proliferation of ads supporting Prop 27 is concerning.

“They are all over the place,” Bachrach said. “Gambling is already a pretty big business, but to be able to do sports gambling online is dangerous because it hurts what tribal casinos have been able to do for their communities in the state.”

According to Bachrach, Prop 26 protects the sovereignty of native tribes. “It’s a really important racial justice issue,” she said. “Indian casinos provide a tremendous amount of financial support for the casino tribes and the non-casino tribes, and they contribute a lot locally and to the state.”

Bachrach’s organization is one of several civil rights or African American organizations that have thrown its support behind Prop 26.

Santa Clarita NAACP spokesperson Nati Braunstein said in an email, “The NAACP supports Prop 26, which would legalize retail sports betting at California tribal casinos only and opposes Prop 27 which would allow online sports betting via mobile sportsbooks.”

Kathy Fairbanks, speaking for the Yes on 26/No on 27 coalition, composed of California Indian tribes and tribal organizations, and other partners, said winning the approval of every potential voter, including Black Californians, is their goal.

Yes on 27 – Californians for Solutions to Homelessness, the campaign arm of Prop 27 backers, had not returned California Black Media’s requests for comment for this story as of press time. Prop 27 proponents say in ads and the Yes on 27 website repeats that the initiative would help solve California’s homelessness crisis.

Prop 27 imposes a 10% tax on adjusted gross gaming revenue. Eighty-five percent of the taxes go toward fighting California’s homeless and mental health challenges. Non-gaming tribes get the remaining 15% of tax revenue.

Organizations such as Bay Area Community Services, Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness, San Diego Regional Task Force on Homelessness, and individuals including Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Bay Area Community Services CEO Jamie Almanza, and Middletown Rancheria of Pomo Indians Chairman Jose “Moke” Simon are listed as Prop 27 supporters on the Yes on 27 website.

On the campaign’s Facebook page, commenter Brandon Gran wrote under an advertisement photo that voting for Prop 27 was a “no brainer.”

“People are already gambling using offshore accounts,” he typed. “Why not allow CA to get a piece of the pie … money that will (hopefully) go to good use.”

However, a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), conducted between Sept. 2 and 11 and released on Sept. 15, revealed that 54% of California voters would vote “no” for Prop 27, while 34% would vote “yes.” Twelve percent of the respondents were “unsure.”

The survey’s authors wrote that a strong majority of Republicans wouldn’t vote for the proposition, compared to half of Democrats and independents.

“Regionally, majorities in the Inland Empire, Orange/San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area would vote ‘no,’ while likely voters in the Central Valley and Los Angeles are divided,” they wrote. “At least half across most demographic groups would vote ‘no.’ Likely voters age 18 to 44 (52%) and renters (51%) are the only two demographic groups with a slim majority voting ‘yes.’”

The survey, titled “PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government,” did not ask participants about Prop 26. The Yes on 26/No on 27 coalition, said in a news release that the PPIC’s research confirmed what Prop 26 supporters have said for some time.

“Despite raising more than $160 million for a deceptive advertising campaign, California voters are clearly not buying what the out-of-state online gambling corporations behind Prop 27 are selling,” the statement read.

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Why Sarah Syed Is My Choice for AC Transit Board of Directors, Ward 3.

As the AC Transit board president, a challenge I am confronted with is that traditional transit planning practice has ignored the pervasive issues of segregation, displacement, and exclusion from opportunity. Although the impacts of redlining can be felt in almost every aspect of life: from access to high quality education, to job opportunities and even healthy food options, our region doesn’t invest in transit service to repair past harms.  

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Elsa Ortiz is the AC Transit board president and the retiring Ward 3 director, which includes Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda.
Elsa Ortiz is the AC Transit board president and the retiring Ward 3 director, which includes Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda.

By Elsa Ortiz, President of AC Transit Board

The challenge of inequitable transportation access is felt by tens of thousands of residents in inner East Oakland and communities of color across the Bay Area.

These challenges are compounded by the legacy of redlining, which systematically denied Black and Brown residents access to homeownership and lending programs. Ultimately, the American dream of homeownership, investment in communities and building generational wealth was blocked.

As the AC Transit board president, a challenge I am confronted with is that traditional transit planning practice has ignored the pervasive issues of segregation, displacement, and exclusion from opportunity. Although the impacts of redlining can be felt in almost every aspect of life: from access to high quality education, to job opportunities and even healthy food options, our region doesn’t invest in transit service to repair past harms.

Last week, aboard an AC Transit bus, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg toured Oakland as part of his new effort to repair the damage done by large federal transportation projects, like freeways, which divided neighborhoods where people of color were the majority of the population.

Residents of underserved communities are the experts in understanding what they need. Unfortunately, the number of local political leaders who are ready to invest in transportation equity are few and far in between. Therefore, we have important ballot choices on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Sarah Syed, a candidate for AC Transit Board Ward 3, is the leader our region needs to turbocharge equitable cities. As a mixed-race woman, Sarah understands that access to transit is a question of equity. Through her work with the Bay Area Rapid Transit, the Valley Transportation Authority, and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, as a transportation planner and engineer of 20 years, Syed worked to help underserved communities.

In Los Angeles, where 88% of riders are people of color, Sarah took on a heavily bureaucratic system and planned enhancements to the routes disadvantaged riders were already using, including improving service frequency to every 10 minutes on two lines, new bus shelters at nearly 400 locations, and improvements along six different streets to extend the sidewalk and improve street safety and accessibility to bring better bus service.

Through her work with UC-Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, Syed is helping community-based organizations and local government agencies in eight communities across the state of California so that local equity leadership can drive the agenda of transportation planning to meet the priority concerns of underserved residents

As your next AC Transit Director for Ward 3, Syed will champion policy-based interventions to close equity gaps, equitable hiring and personnel practices.

She will work to build broad, ethnically inclusive coalitions to stand up for bus transit and communicate its value in ways that inspire members of the public and potential political allies.

When we improve bus service, we make our cities better places to live and help address some of America’s deepest problems.

Please join me, State Senator Nancy Skinner, Supervisor Nate Miley, the Alameda County Democratic Party, the three Mayors in Ward 3, and three BART Directors in supporting Sarah Syed for AC Transit Ward 3.

Elsa Ortiz is the AC Transit board president and the retiring Ward 3 director, which includes Oakland, San Leandro, and Alameda.

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Activism

We Will Not Incarcerate Our Way Out of This

Housing is a human right. We can use public resources to ensure everyone has a safe place to live and effective mental health and substance use treatment. Instead, we’ve gutted our social programs to the point where they don’t function and assume this lack of functionality means there’s no solution.

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As we’ve overfunded police and underfunded housing, treatment, and other essential services, we’ve seen more policing but less safety.
Last week, California Highway Patrol (CHP) and CalTrans violently evicted the Wood Street community, the largest encampment in the Bay Area.

People Are Liberating Public Spaces to Fight the Criminalization of Poverty

By Cat Brooks

How many times have you walked by an unhoused neighbor and told yourself it’s their fault, that they made the wrong life choices?

But the truth is that our unhoused crisis is the result of decades-long policies that criminalize poverty, addiction and mental health disabilities and treat human beings like garbage to be swept away with Friday’s trash while ignoring root causes.

Every city in the U.S. responds to visible poverty with fences, fines, cops, courts, and cages. These shortsighted responses make great photo ops, and let politicians pontificate, but all only accomplish terrorizing the most vulnerable, who move into new neighborhoods and reestablish their right to exist.

No matter how many arrests or evictions, the people will continue to be, and as part of that being — reclaim public spaces.

When San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for the erection of fences around the 24th Street Bart Plaza, the community struck back and retook the plaza. @MissionDeFence_SF posted a statement in solidarity with other current public land struggles, including: People’s Park in Berkeley, Parker Elementary in Oakland, Echo Park in Los Angeles and Mystic Garden in Daly City.

These struggles are proof positive that the power lies with the people who will rise up, resist and reclaim the people’s space.

Last week, California Highway Patrol (CHP) and CalTrans violently evicted the Wood Street community, the largest encampment in the Bay Area. CHP (the 4th most murderous law enforcement agency in California) descended on the camp for phase one of an armed eviction that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Wood Street’s estimated 200-300 residents are being offered little relocation support or resources. Only a fraction has been given shelters or RV spots. Two were arrested for non-violent civil disobedience amidst an outpouring of community support.

Most of the Wood Street folks are Black, several are elders, many extremely vulnerable, and almost all are victims of gentrification and criminalization.

I was there to bear witness as the state demolished a tiny home, towed RVs, and destroyed lives. No effort was made to move their homes and belongings. Mayor Libby Schaaf doesn’t believe the city has any obligation to do so.

In an open letter to Schaaf, Governor Gavin Newsom, and others, residents offered concrete solutions and laid out their needs. They’ve been asking for sanitation services and fire safety for years. They’ve been ignored.

In their letter, they wrote, “The Wood Street community stands strong in our determination to keep our community together. We plan to continue organizing and fighting for long-term and permanent housing solutions.”

For now, they’ll be forced to move into residential areas where NIMBYS will call cops to protect their fragile senses from the brutality of visible poverty. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

This story is playing out across California.  Instead of meeting people’s basic needs, the state legislature does things like “CARE Courts” — to force unhoused people into court-ordered treatment that will cost millions and target Black and brown folks. The bill is Governor Newsom’s brainchild and a continuation of criminalizing the unhoused under the guise of “care” which he’s done since his days as mayor of San Francisco.

Housing is a human right. We can use public resources to ensure everyone has a safe place to live and effective mental health and substance use treatment. Instead, we’ve gutted our social programs to the point where they don’t function and assume this lack of functionality means there’s no solution.

Poverty is a political choice. Oakland’s unhoused population increased 24% since 2019 (thank you Libby), yet the Town spends 10 times as much on police as it does on housing.

As we’ve overfunded police and underfunded housing, treatment, and other essential services, we’ve seen more policing but less safety. We are less safe when we build walls to keep unhoused neighbors out of public spaces. We are less safe when we respond to mental health crises with a badge and gun.

We are less safe when the treatment plan for substance use problems is a cage.

If seeing unhoused people makes us uncomfortable, then we should invest in housing for all. If public drug use offends us, then we should invest in safe injection facilities (a proven public health intervention that Newsom just vetoed).

If watching someone experience a mental health crisis is distressing, then we should invest in community-driven approaches to support individuals in crisis.

Until we do these things, no matter how much our elected officials try to sanitize the crises we face, the people will keep knocking down fences to liberate public spaces.

Cat Brooks is co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, executive director of the Justice Teams Network and host of Law & Disorder on KPFA, a new show that exposes the cracks in our system and agitates for resistance.

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