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Veteran Democratic Strategist Is The First Black Woman To Lead EMILY's List


It's a basic reality that people who run for office have to raise money to do that. It's considered especially tough for women of color. And a political group that works to elect hundreds of democratic women wants to address that. Laphonza Butler is the first Black woman to lead the group. She is a former union leader and Democratic strategist. And she spoke with our political correspondent Juana Summers on the NPR Politics Podcast.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: Laphonza Butler joined EMILY's List at a critical moment, with abortion rights advocates reeling after the state of Texas enacted the country's most restrictive abortion law. And the conservative Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the future of Roe v. Wade next year. Butler acknowledged the difficulty of this moment. But when I spoke with her along with my NPR Politics colleague Ayesha Rascoe, we raised another difficulty for EMILY's List, criticism that it has not done enough to lift up women candidates of color.

LAPHONZA BUTLER: 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 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. And I believe that one of the real gifts that is EMILY's List, where we admittedly need to do better, is to help train our candidates of color. I accept the criticism. I also accept the challenge that the organization has done - and not well enough - to have our women candidates and women candidates of color feel like EMILY's List is a home for them.

SUMMERS: Why do you think more women of color - or maybe even not women of color, more women have not historically seen the organization of a home?

BUTLER: I think that a lot of the story and contribution of EMILY's List, you know, the work that EMILY's List did to support leaders like Lucy McBath, for instance, or leaders like Lauren Underwood, like Terri Sewell. These are Black women that had the support of EMILY's List throughout their campaigns and work that EMILY's List has done. And so I think that there is some missing pieces of the story of the organization that need to be told.

SUMMERS: Butler grew up in Mississippi and spent much of her career in California. When she talked about how she views politics and as approaching her new job, she frequently brought up her young daughter, as well as her mother.

BUTLER: My mom didn't teach me about politics. My mom taught me about survival on the days where she had to work three jobs in one day to make sure that our lights stayed on, on the days where, you know, she had to stay up all night worried about how she was going to provide food for us the next month. And so I understand the women very much who every day are focused on survival and focused on providing a greater opportunity for their kids. And what I'd like to do is be able to take my experience and my journey and be able to connect with those women, be able to show them that it is through politics, it is through electing other women and sometimes even putting yourself out there as the candidate that we're going to be able to make those kinds of changes and move from survival to thriving.

SUMMERS: Many people may not know that you were a senior strategist on then-candidate Kamala Harris' campaign. So I am personally curious, what did that experience teach you about women in power, women in politics, the work that you're setting out to do?

BUTLER: It taught me an incredible amount. What I was able to see 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. Strategically, we should not want to amplify it. At the same time, we've got to be able to tell voters who our candidates are and tell them who they are early.

SUMMERS: Butler also pointed to another Black woman candidate, Stacey Abrams of Georgia, who ran for governor and lost in 2018. In that campaign, Abrams' personal debt was raised as an issue by political opponents. Abrams turned it around and used her financial struggles to relate to voters.


STACEY ABRAMS: I fundamentally believe that debt is not a shame. You should not - it's not a stigma. It's a reality for more than three-quarters of Americans because we have a system that says...

BUTLER: Tactically and strategically in campaigns, that, I think, is how we push through. And those attacks, yes, they come fast and nasty at women and Black women in particular. And making sure that we run smart campaigns, that we do the work, that we engage authentically with voters, those are the ways in which I've seen Black women in particular overcome those kinds of challenges and be successful.

SUMMERS: Butler said that with so much on the line for women in the next year, her plan is to make sure that EMILY's List is focused on state and local races. Her argument is that Democrats must win those offices where the battles over key issues like abortion rights and voting rights often start.

Juana Summers, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NERIJA'S "NASCENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.