Union Veteran Takes Over at Emily’s List as Abortion Fights Loom

Laphonza Butler, a labor leader turned strategist, will become the first woman of color — and the first mother — to lead the Democratic fund-raising powerhouse.,


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Emily’s List, the fund-raising powerhouse that has helped elect hundreds of women who support abortion rights, has chosen Laphonza Butler, a former union leader and well-connected Democratic strategist in California, as its next president.

Ms. Butler, 42, who grew up in Southern Mississippi, will be the first woman of color — and the first mother — to lead the organization, one of the nation’s most influential political action committees.

She will take over Emily’s List at a particularly fraught time, with Democrats facing the dual challenges of a difficult midterm election and the most fundamental and widespread threats to abortion rights since the Supreme Court established a constitutional right to abortion in Roe v. Wade in 1973.

In an interview, Ms. Butler said she believed that new abortion restrictions enacted in Texas and looming in other states would energize Democratic women, providing both a wake-up call and a potent line of attack for candidates backed by Emily’s List.

“We think that every Republican running for office has to make their intentions known to voters about where they stand on a woman’s right to make her own health care decisions and Roe v. Wade,” she said.

Ms. Butler is a veteran organizer, having spent nearly two decades at the Service Employees International Union, eventually leading its home-care workers local. In that role and as president of S.E.I.U. California, she pushed for policies like raising the state minimum wage to $15 and increasing income taxes for the wealthy.

She left to become a political consultant, and was a senior strategist for Vice President Kamala Harris’s presidential bid.

An Emily’s List endorsement is one of the most sought-after for Democratic women candidates, providing a widely recognized seal of approval to women whose votes, organizing work and political contributions are increasingly important to the party as a whole. The organization introduces the candidates it endorses to a vast network of donors and advises them on strategy, staffing and fund-raising. (Its name is an acronym for the saying “Early money is like yeast.”)

The group’s power multiplied during President Trump’s term, as record numbers of women became political candidates. In the four months after the 2016 election, Emily’s List said it was contacted by more than 10,000 women looking to run for office — more than 10 times the number in the previous two years combined. The group says it has raised over $700 million and helped elect more than 1,500 women at every level of government, including the vice presidency.

The group has drawn fire by taking sides in primary contests featuring several qualified female candidates. And its decision to largely sit out the Democratic presidential primary race — endorsing Senator Elizabeth Warren three days before she ended her bid — attracted some criticism after all six women who ran for the nomination lost.

Detractors also say that Emily’s List’s requirement that candidates demonstrate political viability — by showing they can raise money, run a professional campaign and have a shot at winning a general election — can shut out women of color, who often face higher hurdles in fund-raising.

Ms. Butler said there was broad agreement within the organization that it must do more to support nonwhite candidates. She said she intended to expand partnerships with other groups to help recruit more diverse candidates and to “speak to some women who otherwise might not know that Emily’s List is a place that they can call their political home.”

Mary Kay Henry, the S.E.I.U.’s international president, said Ms. Butler was well positioned to engage a more diverse class of female political leaders to “become the leaders that working families need.”

“She’s very capable of using her own personal story to create relationships,” she said.

Ms. Butler, who has a 7-year-old daughter, was born in Magnolia, Miss., and grew up in a home largely supported by her mother, who worked as a security guard, gas station cashier, home-care worker and teaching assistant, among other jobs.

“Emily’s List continues to give me the opportunity to work for women like my mom,” Ms. Butler said in the interview. “What daughter doesn’t want to continue her mother’s journey?”

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