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Exclusive Interview: Targum speaks to Laphonza Butler about protestors, youth voting

Last week, Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) sat down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Targum before her speech as part of the Center for American Women and Politics' (CAWP) Sen. Wynona Lipman Chair in Women's Political Leadership lecture. – Photo by @Senlaphonza / X

The Daily Targum's news desk recently met with Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics to discuss various topics pertinent to American youth, including protests on college campuses, TikTok and climate change.

Butler was appointed to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) after her death in 2023. Prior to holding the role, Butler served as a union leader and president of EMILY's List, an organization that supports women who run to represent the Democratic party. 

When asked about her recent measure to introduce a youth climate council in various federal institutions and her establishment of a youth advisory council to educate her own office, Butler said she took these steps to increase youth participation in policy and faith in the positive role government can play.

On recent protests across college campuses, including Rutgers, against the ongoing Israel-Hamas War in Gaza and how it impacts the student vote, Butler commended students for their continuous advocacy and acknowledged the pitfalls of both the Republican and Democratic parties' presidential candidates.

"None of the candidates (for president) in front of us are perfect, but there's a clear distinction between the one who would protect your right to protest and the one who has actually made comments about how he thinks protestors should be treated," Butler said.

When asked further about the general election, she defended President Joseph R. Biden Jr., citing his work to pass legislation protecting the right to vote. At the same time, she also encouraged him to communicate with voters and understand the personal challenges they may be experiencing following the COVID-19 pandemic.

Butler also spoke on her recent vote for a federal bill that will send additional military aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel and humanitarian aid to Gaza. 

The bill, which passed with bipartisan support, also opens the door to banning TikTok in the U.S. Butler clarified that she did not agree with every provision in the bill and would not have voted for a ban on the app on its own.

"Promoting democracy and protecting families and providing the humanitarian aid, to me, outweighs some of the things that I dislike strongly about the bill," she said. "I chose to support (its) broader goals and direction."

On labor issues, specifically regarding ongoing disputes between Rutgers faculty and administration, Butler suggested both sides maintain civilized dialogue.

The interview closed with Butler reflecting on her time spent organizing for female candidates. She said there are more opportunities now for women of color to engage in politics than there have been historically, but progress still needs to be made.

Themes of women's civic engagement reemerged during her talk later at the Kathleen W. Ludwig Global Village Living Learning Center on Douglass campus, "The Power of Black Women's Leadership in Politics," honoring the late New Jersey State Sen. Wynona Lipman (D-29).

While introducing the senator, Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), acknowledged the similarities between Lipman, the first Black female senator in New Jersey, and Butler, the only Black woman currently serving in the U.S. Senate.

Butler began her lecture by recognizing the CAWP's research on women and civics and addressing her relatively brief amount of time in the Senate. 

She has already announced she will not be campaigning for another term during the 2024 election cycle and finds herself to be more of a mobilizer than a congresswoman.

She later spoke about how she is unsure what she will do next as of now, as she has always been called to the roles she holds.

"One of the most honored titles that I will ever have is 'United States Senator from the state of California,'" she said. "It is deeply meaningful to (the) 40 million people who call my state home, (but) it can be interpreted as one of the emptiest titles."

She further spoke on her time as a union leader, asserting that her time spent organizing workers was a valuable experience, and took the opportunity to acknowledge the various ways Black women often serve as leaders outside of formal roles.

"We lead with clipboards, we lead with making lunch, we lead with making sure that the bus is on time," she said. "We have a recognition that leadership can and will often look very different for us than it looks for others."

After the lecture portion of the event concluded, Walsh asked Butler questions provided by the audience regarding her thoughts on the current state of politics and personal experiences.

Asked how the country should work to preserve its democracy, Butler said she is unsure but calls on the public to acknowledge harsh realities before working to protect it.

She went on to commend increased diversity in candidates running for office, something that has been documented by the CAWP as well. In a similar vein, she spoke about her faith and status as the first openly LGBTQ+ Black senator at the federal level.

"It is so meaningful to me what my presence in these spaces (means) for other (LGBTQ+) young leaders who are finding their way," she said.

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