EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler on the Importance of Women Running and the Path Ahead

Laphonza Butler.

EMILY’s List has a 36-year-long history of getting Democratic pro-choice women elected to office. In September, Laphonza Butler was named president of EMILY’s List. She is the first Black woman and the first mother to lead the organization.

Ms. reporter Lisa Rabasca Roepe spoke with Butler about her history-making role at EMILY’s List.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe: You’re no stranger to breaking barriers. Earlier in your career, you were the youngest president of SEIU Local 2015, the biggest union in California. Now you’re the first Black woman, and the first mother, to run EMILY’s List. 

Do you think your role as a mother and your identity as a Black woman are important distinctions given that so many women, especially women of color, are leaving the workplace because they are struggling to find childcare

Laphonza Butler: I take great pride in being the first Black woman and the first mom to be at the helm of EMILY’s List. The organization has done such incredible work over the past 36 years to literally change the face of American politics. I feel that weight to make sure that women, no matter their socioeconomic status or their ethnic background, can feel that EMILY’s List is a place where they can find the resources and the support that they need to run a successful campaign. 

My work at SEIU Local 2015 was a microcosm of the globe. I chose to be the kind of leader that produced all our written materials in eight languages and conducted all of our meetings with simultaneous translation in English, Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Armenian, Russian, Vietnamese and Tagalog, a Filipino dialect. I think it’s a manifestation of my journey as a Black woman and not feeling like my voice mattered. 

When I accepted the role at EMILY’s List, I thought about my 7-year-old daughter. I want to wake up every day being an example for her about how she belongs anywhere she chooses to be and how her voice will matter in halls of power and in boardrooms, if she chooses to be there.

I hope that my work can be living example for women of color and moms who may not have thought that their path was conducive to being in outward-facing roles or in leadership positions. I hope that more women who are thinking about offering themselves as public servants can see a little bit of themselves in me and know that it’s possible to do what others may perceive as impossible.

“I hope that my work can be living example for women of color and moms who may not have thought that their path was conducive to being in outward-facing roles or in leadership positions.”

Butler with Vice President Kamala Harris in December 2019. (Twitter)

Roepe: What are one or two things about EMILY’s List that the general public, or even candidates seeking endorsement, don’t fully understand about the organization?

Butler: I think that a common perception of EMILY’s List is that we are a means for financial support, which is not wrong—but to your point, there’s so much more that candidates need in order for them to actually be elected. Our teams help the candidate to build an infrastructure that would allow her to be successful, providing names of potential campaign managers who are culturally competent and deeply experienced. It takes a team of people to help the candidate, particularly if she’s never thought about running before.

Many people don’t know about the deep work we do at the state and local level in terms of training and community engagement to build a pipeline of diverse candidates who may start in local government but who eventually run for higher office. For example, we were with [St. Louis] Mayor Tishaura Jones from the beginning. Not everybody wins the first time around so whether it’s Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) or Mayor Tishaura Jones we stick with these women, doing the work at the local level, engaging with our partners to help build that diverse pipeline and support professional campaigns.

Roepe: What is your number one priority for EMILY’s List this year?

Butler:  For the longer term, our goal is making sure that we and our candidates are prepared for the election season that will start in August or September of next year, when voters will start to engage and pay attention. Making sure that our candidates are strong, they’re communicating with their districts, they know the issues, and they have the right infrastructure and the resources and path to victory.

“Making sure our candidates are strong, they’re communicating with their districts, they know the issues, and they have the right infrastructure and the resources and path to victory.”

Roepe: How will your experience as a union organizer help in the difficult midterm elections in 2022?

Butler: One of the best skills that I learned as a union organizer is the importance of listening. At my core, I identify as an organizer, and I think the best organizers are those who listen.

I want to really listen to what voters are saying. The only way that we’re going to bring about the change that we need and the representative majorities that are going to be necessary to effectuate policy is to make sure that we’re fully engaged, that we’re listening to what voters are saying and that we’re communicating in a way that is clear, concise and concrete.

This is going to be a hard year. it’s going to be a hard midterm, but I know that we’ve done hard things before. I feel like union organizing has prepared me, not only from a skill point of view, but also from a resiliency and a mindset point of view about how to deal with tough challenges and to continue to push through, and to do this incredibly important work for the sake of our democracy.

Roepe: How might EMILY’s List try to engage more Black, Asian and Latina women voters prior to the midterm election?

Butler: In my opinion you just named the triumvirate—the secret sauce that’s not such a secret for ensuring that EMILY’s List is a relevant organization moving forward. It’s an organization that has always worked to build partnerships, engaging with more Black, Asian and Latina women voters by declaring that we must be a relevant organization in the lives of those women and figure out how we create the credibility the enables us to be relevant.

That’s where our partnerships come in, whether it’s [national] organizations like Higher Heights or WPAC or Voto Latino or the Asian Pacific American Institute or [local] organizations like LUCHA in Arizona or Fair Fight in Georgia—it’s finding and engaging those partnerships that touch everyday people and help to establish the collective credibility to be able to engage.

In order for us to really reach those communities we’ve got to make sure that we are speaking to the issues and making sure that they have access to the ballot box. So, we want to make sure that we keep our focus on voting rights. If women in those communities don’t have access to the ballot, then we can’t fulfill our mission.

EMILY’s List helps create more women lawmakers, such as Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. (EMILY’s List / Twitter)

Roepe:  Given all the challenges to abortion rights, has the EMILY’s List mission become even more important?

Butler: You couldn’t design a better test for an organization like EMILY’s List than the test that is before us—whether or not women are going to have the right to make their own health care choices with their doctor and their family, whether or not they’re going to be able to have access to abortion services, whether or not reproductive freedom and justice is going to remain. 

Roepe: What advice do you have for younger women, especially women of color, who are considering a run for office either locally or on a larger stage?

Butler: Do it! Congress, state legislatures and local boards across the country include women who were told they couldn’t win, that it wasn’t their turn or it was too hard. The only way that we can break down the doors of power and destroy what is seen as “normal” is to make women from all backgrounds running and winning normal. 

Vice President Harris used to say it best on the campaign trail: “[It’s about] knowing what can be unburdened by what has been.”

This is why EMILY’s List was founded—to go beyond what was conventional to create something extraordinary.

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Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes about women in the workplace and issues related to gender and diversity. Her work has appeared in Fast Company, Business Insider, the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Marketplace, Quartz, CQ Researcher and The Week. Follow her on Twitter: @lisarab.