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Laphonza Butler Is America

Gavin Newsom’s baiting is so dispiriting because it represents our rulers’ power over public life.

Credit: Fitzgerald

For an unknown reason, some Americans are concerned that the Senate’s newest delegate from California is actually from Maryland. Gavin Newsom presumed, perhaps rightly, that a citizen appointed to the nation’s highest deliberative body should reflect more deliberation than mere residency status.

This characteristic of deliberative restraint is one for which Laphonza Romanique Butler is apparently known. “Those who know Butler say not to expect a rash decision, calling her thoughtful and deliberate,” reported Politico on the early morning of Tuesday, shortly before she was sworn in. One person who was part of the selection committee that chose Butler as EMILY’s List president told the same outlet, “She won't let someone force her into a decision that she's not ready to make.”


Newsom’s appointment of Butler to the upper chamber was consistent with the power moves for which he already has a solid reputation. Whoever he appointed would ideally check all the intersectionalist boxes, not as an endorsement of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s musings, but as bait for the right; she (it would certainly be someone whom we at least had to call “she”) would ideally not spend much time in California—again, bait. Newsom admitted his fondness for this tactic when Elex Michaelson asked him last week whether his debate offer with Ron DeSantis was a bait: “Of course. I mean why is he debating a guy who’s not even running for president when he’s running for president?”

The bait works because Butler is not merely a scapegoat for the right’s current dissatisfactions, but is somehow a reflection of the country. The only thing standing between Laphonza Butler and Kamala Harris at her swearing-in was that it was not a husband but Butler’s professed wife holding a gold-trimmed red book labeled, also in gold, “Holy Bible.”

A symbolic ceremony works because it represents actual policy. Butler’s swearing-in is no different. An example: The Biden administration’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a body that purports to be independent even after Biden fired the Trump-appointed general counsel in March 2021, has offered a poetic reading of the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act, which passed on largely partisan lines through the Consolidated Appropriations Act at the end of last year. 

The commission’s regulations to implement the law, which is still open for one of the more endearing vestiges of performative democracy known as “public comment,” make fifteen references to abortion and six to contraception, even though the law makes no reference to either. Biden and the Democrats who drafted the bill got away with implicit abortion protections through a statute that gave the EEOC discretion to issue regulations with “examples of reasonable accommodations addressing known limitations related to pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.”

The commission simply included “use of birth control” and “having or choosing not to have an abortion” within the definition of related medical conditions for a law purportedly designed to protect pregnant workers—and then the game was over. 


Another example: The Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which just last week put out a request for public input on how to best provide over-the-counter contraception “without cost sharing and without a prescription by a healthcare provider, in addressing systemic racism and historic inequity for women and LGBTQIA communities,” citing a couple executive orders put out by the White House since the fall of Roe

Finally, we have the same agency’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, which functions within the Administration for Children and Families. The office published a notice of proposed rulemaking on Wednesday that confirmed “ORR will continue to facilitate access to medical services requiring heightened ORR involving, including access to abortions…regardless of whether the Federal Government may pay for the abortion under the Hyde Amendment.” This proposed rule does not apply to just anyone over whom ORR claims jurisdiction, but specifically for unaccompanied children.

These three proposed rule changes, all of which remain pending, confirm that the mindset of Roe remains the dominant political force of the federal government. As hidden as these actions may be, they impose more on the American public than Dobbs ever claimed to impose. As Hadley Arkes remarked in his one-year commemoration of the release of Dobbs

Roe not merely created a right to abortion; it changed the culture. It converted abortion from a thing to be abhorred, discouraged, and forbidden, into something approved, celebrated, and encouraged.  The conservative justices in Dobbs did nothing to start undoing those moral lessons.

As the Court continues to teach the lessons of Roe, so do American classrooms, boardrooms, and consulting firms. 

Laphonza Butler, a former custodian of each of these three areas of American life, could not have strolled into the Senate merely because of her race, sexual curiosities, purported marriage status, residency status, or her position as one of the primary fundraisers for her party as the president of a PAC that brought in over $67 million last year. Butler got the gig because she is America’s senator: thoughtful, deliberate, unwilling to be forced into a decision she’s not ready to make, and earnestly solicitous about public input. Who but Laphonza Butler?


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