It hasn’t been emphasized enough that Laphonza Butler, California’s newest U.S. senator, has no legislative experience.

This hole in her resume matters a great deal despite an erosion of public faith in legislative experience that is a bipartisan affliction in our politics. It was one of the factors that led to the election of President Donald Trump. In liberal, one-party California, the importance of legislative experience was disregarded by Gov. Gavin Newsom when he appointed the inexperienced Butler to fill the seat of the late Dianne Feinstein.

Sworn in on Tuesday, Butler has been celebrated widely for her race, her gender, her orientation and her sterling credentials of a certain kind. She has also been lauded within an echo chamber of Democrats, many of whom have been elected to public office even if Butler never has.

Lost in the aftermath of Butler’s appointment has been the kind of critical scrutiny that would normally accompany an important political appointment. Her appointment is problematic because the voting public of California has no idea where Butler stands on crucial issues because she’s never had to cast a vote on any level of government. What are her views on foreign policy? Despite staying too long in power, Feinstein was a titan in California and national politics and she’s being replaced by a legislative beginner.

Moreover, Butler has made curious choices and statements in the past that have not been examined as they would in an election campaign. She joined the Senate this week not long after writing a letter on behalf of a former Los Angeles City Councilman who was convicted in a federal bribery and fraud scheme. Mark Ridley-Thomas is facing 42 months in a federal prison. Butler’s letter on behalf of Ridley-Thomas earlier this year was a recitation of political favors and personal kindness that Ridley-Thomas bestowed on her. How he supported her efforts to secure a $15-an-hour minimum wage in California. How thoughtful he was to her partner after a cancer diagnosis.

Butler’s main ask in the letter was that authorities consider “the totality of who and what Mr. Ridley-Thomas has been, the work he has done and the leadership he showed so many of us in times of difficulty.”

It was the kind of letter that an advocate would write, which is what Butler has been in her career. An advocate for union members but also, curiously, for some companies hated by unions.

Butler has done consulting work for rideshare giant, Uber. Earlier this year, a state appeals court ruled that companies like Uber and Lyft can continue to treat their California drivers as independent contractors.

“The ruling mostly upholds a voter-approved law, called Proposition 22, that said drivers… are not entitled to benefits like paid sick leave and unemployment insurance,” wrote National Public Radio.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, leader of the California Labor Federation and a former state assemblywoman, said this about the ruling: “Today the Appeals Court chose to stand with powerful corporations over working people, allowing companies to buy their way out of our state’s labor laws and undermine our state constitution.”

Butler chose to stand with Uber as well, her labor background notwithstanding.

She has declined to discuss the specifics of the work she did for Uber. And Gonzalez Fletcher has declined to comment on Butler’s appointment to the Senate. That the most high-profile labor leader in California won’t say anything about Butler beyond “congratulations” speaks volumes. It also hints at the political implications of Butler’s appointment that have been obscured by her personal story as a Black, gay woman joining the elite ranks of the U.S. Senate.

Upon naming Butler, Newsom said that he was placing no conditions on her appointment and that if she chose to run for a full term in 2024, it was up to her. Butler won’t answer the question of whether she will run in 2024, but it seems a safe bet that someone will do a poll gauging her chances.

If Butler decided she wanted to run for a full term, it’s inconceivable that Newsom would just stand by and let her lose. He would want his appointee to beat Adam Schiff, Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, members of the House of Representatives vying for the Senate seat now occupied by Butler.

So if Newsom is willing to do that, why wasn’t he willing to support Lee?

She’s a seasoned legislator, with a strong voice. She’s principled and battle-tested. By appointing Butler, Newsom was picking someone with a profile that suited his political aspirations.

If Newsom really wanted to pick a Black woman who has paid her dues and done the hard work of standing in front of voters to get elected, he would not have chosen Laphonza Butler.

But he did because Newsom is who he is. He rightly calculated that once he appointed Butler, the same critics angry with him for giving the impression that his appointment was a seat warmer would suddenly be happy.

Butler’s personal story silenced real skepticism about Newsom’s choice.

But there should be more scrutiny. Butler’s appointment is an outlier in California politics.

The last time someone this inexperienced was named to the Senate was in 1964 when then-Gov. Pat Brown tabbed Pierre Salinger to fill a seat vacated after the death of an incumbent, just as Butler replaced Feinstein.

Salinger had been press secretary to President John F. Kennedy before serving a brief stint in the Senate that ended after a few months when he was defeated by Republican George Murphy in November of 1964. Unlike Butler, Salinger was born and raised in California. He grew up, was educated and worked in San Francisco before working for JFK.

Butler is from Mississippi. For a decade, she was president of SEIU 2015 — the largest labor union in California representing more than 325,000 nursing home and home-care workers. Butler was an adviser to Kamala Harris during her disastrous run for president in the 2020 election, which ended before the California primary. She was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to serve on the UC Board of Regents and served three years before moving to Maryland to run EMILY’s List.

Much has been made of the fact that she had been living in Maryland for the last two years when Newsom appointed her to the Senate, but the truth is even more troubling. In her life, Butler has only passed through California in pursuit of her impressive career trajectory.

Despite the trappings of a barrier-breaking personal story, Butler is where she is today thanks to the patronage of California’s elite political class. She got a leg up into the U.S. Senate by political calculation, despite her lack of experience.

Californians need to know this should Butler decide to run for elective office for the first time in her life.

Marcos Bretón oversees The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board.  ©2023 The Sacramento Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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