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The New Leader Of EMILY's List On How Politics Needs To Change For Women Of Color14:59

Laphonza Butler speaks onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)
Laphonza Butler speaks onstage during The 2018 MAKERS Conference at NeueHouse Hollywood on February 6, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)
Updated September 17, 2021 at 7:20 AM ET

EMILY's List, the influential Democratic group that has helped elect hundreds of women who support abortion rights, has a new leader.

Laphonza Butler, a longtime union leader and Democratic strategist, is the group's next president, the first Black woman and first mother to hold that role since EMILY's List was founded in 1985.

Butler was born in Mississippi and spent much of her career in California where she spent more than 20 years at the Service Employees International Union. She was a leading Democratic political consultant and a senior adviser to Vice President Kamala Harris' presidential bid.

On the NPR Politics Podcast, we spoke with Laphonza Butler about the latest battle over abortion rights in the United States and her vision for the future of EMILY's List.

She talked about her desire to "throw the doors of EMILY's List open" to more would-be candidates, her belief that the organization must do more to support nonwhite candidates, and what she learned from working on Harris' presidential campaign.

The following are excerpts from the full interview with Butler, with answers edited for clarity and length.

JUANA SUMMERS: You've been a union leader. You've been a Democratic strategist for a long time, you worked on a presidential campaign. What made you want to lead EMILY's List?

LAPHONZA BUTLER: I have a seven-year-old daughter. Her name's Nylah. And every day waking up, not different than any other parent, wanting to make sure that what I was doing with my life and time was a demonstration to her about what she can be. But also every day, making sure that I'm creating a better space and world in which for her to live.

As I was thinking about the EMILY's List role, I remembered that her kindergarten class had a mock election around the same time as the presidential race, and Nylah was the only kid in her class to vote for the turtle. There are lots of different animals that were running. I think there was a bear and a wolf, and everybody had their own reason to run. Nylah was the only one who voted for the turtle, because he said he wanted to be fair to everybody.

And so as I was thinking about the EMILY's List role, I thought about the world that my daughter wanted to be a part of: A world that was fair to everybody. And so choosing to do the work at EMILY's List really does give me the opportunity to show her all that she can be, help to create a better world for her. And I think, most importantly, help to create the world that she wants for herself.

JS: When I talk to women, particularly on the left, there's frankly a lot of fear and concern about what many of them describe as the most widespread threat to abortion rights since Roe v. Wade.

LB: I've spent my entire career doing hard things, and this, yes, is an incredibly difficult moment. And abortion rights and a woman's right to make her own health care decisions with her family and her doctor is an issue that is supported by a majority of Americans. And so I think what EMILY's List has in its favor is the will of the American people. The right wing has really been telling us exactly what their intentions were as it relates to Roe for years now. It's their intention to overturn Roe.

EMILY's List and other organizations have been the canary in the coal mine on this issue. And so I think it's going to be an issue that will engage women voters in particular. I think that, you know, we're going to have to make sure that everyone is clear — publicly clear — on what their position is on this issue. And I think that we are going to be able to continue to turn out Democratic voters to support Democratic, pro-choice women, Emily's List candidates, because they're tired of seeing rights taken away.

AYESHA RASCOE: In some ways, it seems like with these court decisions coming out, with the makeup of the Supreme Court right now, that's where part of the concern is, that a lot of the decisions seem to have in some ways already been made. What specifically is EMILY's List going to be looking for from candidates, or the arguments that they are going to be making to voters for why they should vote now when it seems like these things are already happening and it's not clear what can be done about them in this moment?

LB: You know that these pieces of legislation that are making their way to the courts start at the state legislature. And so a way to ensure that these rights are being protected is to make sure that EMILY's List and all of us really continue to pay attention to who we're electing at the state and local level. Yes, the federal government is important. And the attacks on our rights, the rights to make decisions about our body, the attacks on our voting rights — that is happening with governors and state legislators. And so EMILY's List specifically is going to be focused on engaging and investing the resources to win at the state and local level so that these are cases that don't wind their way to the courts.

I think secondly, sort of accepting that we are where we are, the courts have chosen to not act in Texas and to take the case from Mississippi. What we've got to do is to continue to have this public conversation with voters about the rights that are being rolled back. It's interesting to me that we don't have these kinds of conversations about a man's body, but every legislature across the country is now having this conversation about a woman's body and her right to make those decisions. And so we've got to continue to have a public conversation with voters on the importance of issues and the rollback of our rights.

And frankly, you know, I think we've got to build our partnerships so that the credible organizations in communities all over the country can join us in the discussion about the importance of women's right to make decisions about about her body with her family and her doctor. And so we've got to win at the state and local level. We've got to build the partnerships and we've got to continue to have the conversation to make sure that this is an issue that everyone understands is a continued first step in rolling back rights. And if they are successful in doing this, what's next?


JS: Can we talk about money? We know that one of the biggest challenges for candidates, especially women and women of color, is raising money, which is a sign of viability. How does EMILY's List fit into that picture of solving that problem?

LB: That's what EMILY's List was created for. Early money is like yeast. That's what 'EMILY' in EMILY's List really means. It's not a person. It is a concept. It's understanding the importance of how — wrongly or rightly — money is important for women to be able to be seen as being competitive in elections. And that's what was a founding mission of Ellen Malcolm and the 25 folks in her basement who started this organization thirty 36 ago.

There's no question that we as a society judge women candidates differently. There are some serious double standards that men simply don't face, like questions about their parenting or attacks on things like ambition or being demanding or hard to work for. EMILY's List is built to support candidates, not only in raising money, but in creating professional operations and campaigns.

The good news is that there are more women like Vice President Harris, more governors, more mayors, more members of Congress. We are already starting to to change the way that people view women as leaders.

AR: There has been some criticism of EMILY's List, that they haven't done enough to support women of color. There seems at time to be a bit of a divide where Black women in particular, but women of color in particular, have felt there have been more organizations that have been focused on white women, just to be frank.

LB: Look, I appreciate the frankness. I appreciate the criticism. And it is true that that all organizations can do better in the work that it does to support diverse candidates, Black women in particular. Here's the thing: I have only been a black woman for the 42 years that I have been on this earth. And so I know that there are real difficulties and and challenges in being a Black woman who has the courage to put herself up for consideration for public office, and frankly experiencing daily criticism while doing it.

I also know it is culturally a challenge for Black women to be able to ask for money. Where we admittedly need to do better is to help think train our candidates of color, paying much closer attention to our candidates of color, helping to grow their fundraising networks, contributing all of our expertise in in doing that and actually helping to introduce them to more people who do invest in campaigns and donors.

And so I accept the criticism. I also accept the challenge, that the organization has done not well enough to have our women candidates and women candidates of color feel like like EMILY's List is a home for them. Under my leadership, one of the things that I feel like is critical is that every woman feels like EMILY's List is their political home, and that's what we're going to be committed to doing.

JS: You worked as a senior strategist on then-candidate Kamala Harris's presidential campaign. What did that experience teach you about women in politics?

LB: I have been a supporter of [San Francisco] District Attorney Kamala Harris, I've been a supporter of [California] Attorney General Kamala Harris. I have been a supporter of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. I remain a supporter of Vice President Kamala Harris. What I was able to see in any number of the races in which I supported her, and particularly as a senior adviser in her run for president, is the sheer magnitude of misinformation and disinformation that happens online. The attacks about her, in particular, were quite ferocious in describing her character, her race and other areas of who she was as a person.

What it taught me in terms of preparing me for this role at EMILY's List, is we can't ignore the disinformation that exists out there. Strategically, we should not want to amplify it. At the same time, we've got to be able to to tell voters who our candidates are, and tell them who they are early and often so that we can at least be able to make sure that the truth about these women is also being being consumed.

It also taught me that we can't take any of the sort of niceties for granted. There are lots of people who said that those kinds of attacks wouldn't happen and were surprised when those attacks did happen. And so, you know, with our candidates, it really is about making sure that they know that these kinds of things are going to happen, and utilizing our candidate services team to make sure that their campaigns are prepared and that we are responding in the most strategically smart way to be able to push through.

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