January 17th, 2024
During Her Term, Senator Will Focus On Breaking Through Cynicism Around Government
Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Laphonza Butler (D-Calif.) delivered her Maiden Speech on the Senate Floor where she highlighted the critical role of young people as the future of our nation. In her speech, she committed to centering their concerns in her work, vowed to spend her time in the Senate breaking through the cynicism they feel towards government, and emphasized the importance of addressing crises facing today’s youth, including democracy, mental health, and economic opportunity.
“Madam President, I know that I am the newest Senator to join this chamber, and while I may be new to this title and to this institution, I am not new to the struggle and the work of justice,” said Senator Butler. “…And I rise today urgent about the future of our nation’s children. I rise carrying the urgent hopes of my grandfather and my grandmother, the deferred dreams of my mother.”
“There are those who believe that the greatest test of our democracy is coming this November. I would submit that it’s already happening. It’s happening in our high schools and on our college campuses around the country. That’s where my sense of urgency really comes from today.”
“Freedoms once thought to be protected by our constitution for decades—like reproductive healthcare, abortion access and equal opportunity—are being stripped away right in front of us. I am eager to get to work with my colleagues to pass legislation to restore these protections and do today what cannot be left as the unfinished business of generations to come.”
“My commitment to Generation Now includes a focus on their mental health and well-being. I am impatient to work with my colleagues, Senator Padilla and others, to improve access to mental health and eager to work with Senator Brown and Senator Scott to advance the FEND Act to stop the spread of fentanyl in our communities and the killing of our children… I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass the Freedom To Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act.”
“If our children are our future, let us be urgent about the promise of America. It must be that we put our future first because their lives are depending on us today.”
In case you missed it, the full version of Senator Butler’s maiden speech is linked here.
Transcript of speech below:
Madam President, I rise today with gratitude, honored to be a member of this esteemed body. I rise having never imagined that this opportunity to serve would be a part of my journey. But I am grateful to so many who have helped it become true. I was appointed by Governor Gavin Newsom to serve the people of California after the passing of Senator Feinstein. No one could ever fill Senator Feinstein’s shoes, but there’s so many of us who stand on her shoulders. To both of them, I am grateful.
I also know that my presence in these hallowed halls is only made possible by Senator Carol Moseley Braun and now Vice President Kamala Harris. Both of whom were historic members of this great chamber, and to stand on their shoulders as the only Black women in this chamber today, I am eternally grateful. I appreciate the sacrifice and support of my friends and family, the leadership of Emily’s List who allowed me to turn their lives inside out and upside down to meet this moment in our nation’s story. To my partner, Neneki Lee, and my daughter, Nylah Grace, who are in the gallery, I am especially grateful.
Madam President, I know that I am the newest Senator to join this chamber, and while I may be new to this title and to this institution, I am not new to the struggle and the work of justice. You see, I’m the proud daughter of the south, born in Magnolia, Mississippi, the youngest of three children. I’m the granddaughter to Carrie, a sharecropper from Louisiana, crippled at a young age by polio. The granddaughter to Lettie Ruth, a maid who had to take her children to the homes of the white families for whom she cleaned and children she cared for even as she worked to get her certificate as a nursing assistant. My grandparents were patriots who had to be urgent about the promise of America for their eleven children. The promise that if they worked hard and played by the rules that their children would never have to see sharecropping as their destiny. My mother Sarah was number six. She had five in front and five behind. She was born in 1953, one year before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Yet, Madam President, it would be 13 years before she and her classmates saw an integrated school or had any semblance of equal.
As an adult, my mom made ends meet by working sometimes three jobs in the same day, working as a classroom assistant for mostly special needs children. She worked as a certified nursing assistant just as her mom before her. She was a security officer, a cashier at a gas station, but her full time job was unpaid. For more than a decade, she was the primary caregiver for my father Delos who died after suffering six heart attacks, angioplasty, receiving a heart transplant from an 18 year old who died in a motorcycle accident. My father passed when I was 15 years old.
Colleagues, my mother too needed to be urgent about the future of her three children. She knew she had to be and do everything and anything she could to ensure that we had the opportunities to break beyond the barriers of poverty and to chase our dreams.
I went on to be educated at the Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi. I had professors who were lawyers and scholars and organizers in the civil rights movement who were urgent about the young minds and lives that they were there to educate. Leaders like Dr. Mary Coleman, who chaired our political science department and at the same time was a part of the litigation team that sued the state of Mississippi for equal funding for its historically black colleges. Professors like Dr. Leslie Burl Mclemore, who taught in our lecture halls, but also served as a model of leadership, becoming the president of our beloved University, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, and today at 83 years old, one of the first black elected officials in his hometown of Walls, Mississippi. They and others taught me the urgency of opportunity inherent in the promise of America, but they also were clear that the arc of our moral universe bends towards justice only when people keep our heart and our hands pushing it in that direction.
My time with workers, their families, and other leaders at SEIU was also formative because we built coalitions to win, to win healthcare benefits for healthcare workers who had never been able to see a doctor. We built a coalition to win to raise the minimum wage in California to $15 an hour when the average Californian was spending 40% of their disposable income on housing and on food. Together, we fought for environmental justice and to restore redemption and rehabilitation to our criminal justice system. We knew that we urgently needed to work to build the California that our children deserved.
And I was able to continue that work during my time at Emily’s List, supporting pro-choice women who advanced values that united their communities at every level of government. We were intent on creating that new generation of leaders. Madam President, today I am clear that my time in the Senate can be no different. And I rise today urgent about the future of our nation’s children. I rise carrying the urgent hopes of my grandfather and my grandmother, the deferred dreams of my mother. I rise bearing witness to the urgent sense of action of my professors who were determined to show the next generation of leaders that change is possible, only when we choose to do it together.
There are those who believe that the greatest test of our democracy is coming this November. I would submit that it’s already happening. It’s happening in our high schools and on our college campuses around the country. That’s where my sense of urgency really comes from today.
My impatience emerges from listening to my own child who at my staff holiday celebration just last year shared the story of her elementary school lockdown as if it were commonplace. My sense of urgency comes from the facts amplified by the American Psychological Association that 13% of high school girls had attempted suicide while 30% had considered it. Those numbers rose to 20% for LGBTQ+ students, and amongst black girls, the suicide rate rose 36 and a half percent.
My impatience was formed on June 24, 2022 when millions of women and girls across the country just like my little girl came home less free than their mothers and grandmothers the morning of the final Dobbs decision. My urgency was affirmed this past weekend while I was home in California celebrating the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., I had the opportunity to visit with some of our state’s best, brightest and youngest minds. One of them is Jesus Francisco Estrada Jr. He goes by Paco. Paco is going to turn 22 years old a week from today. He’s a first generation college student at Loyola Marymount University and he’s from South Central Los Angeles. He wanted me to make sure that I said, between Green Meadows and Watts. His father is a member of UFCW local 770, and he was the primary income earner in their house when he was working full time for over 20 years at a meat processing and meat-cutting facility.
Paco’s mother was often too sick to work as she suffered from a complex diabetes condition as well as having had a scare with cancer. Paco shared with me that his entire childhood, he had grown up watching and knowing that his family was not going to be able to secure housing month to month. He knew that his father was barely making ends meet and that sometimes they couldn’t afford the rent. He saw the stress that this added to his father’s already grueling responsibilities. And then two years ago, his younger sister had a psychotic episode that was later diagnosed [as] schizophrenia. And as her condition progressed, she became violent in her behavior and [he] once had to have the police come and take her away as he had to be the translator for his Spanish speaking parents about what was happening in his home that day. He said that he learned then, watching his sister be taken away, that police aren’t equipped to deal with people with mental health disorders.
The challenges and headwinds of Paco’s life are enough to set anyone back. Instead, he has chosen to live and to lead forward. And so my commitment to Paco, my urgency about the future of our children, my service to the people of California has to start with democracy and freedom, protecting and advancing its very ideals, determined to preserve it for those who must carry it forward. And I look forward to working with my colleagues to pass the Freedom To Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Freedoms once thought to be protected by our constitution for decades—like reproductive healthcare, abortion access and equal opportunity—are being stripped away right in front of us. I am eager to get to work with my colleagues to pass legislation to restore these protections and do today what cannot be left as the unfinished business of generations to come.
My commitment to Generation Now includes a focus on their mental health and well-being. I am impatient to work with my colleagues, Senator Padilla and others, to improve access to mental health and eager to work with Senator Brown and Senator Scott to advance the FEND Act to stop the spread of fentanyl in our communities and the killing of our children.
According to recent data gathered by the AFL CIO, 88% of workers under 30 want to be in a union. I am urgently ready to stand with those workers and with my colleagues who are committed to taking on the corporations who would stand in their way. We must pass legislation like the Pro Act and the Home and Community Based Services Act to create the workforce necessary to provide the care in our communities. Advancing economic opportunities for Generation Now who will lead and work in the economy of the future, we must do all that we can to ensure the tools necessary to believe in the American dream again.
In closing, Madam President, while I’m urgent, I am also filled with abiding hope. Generation Now may be cynical, but they are not sitting it out. Even as they have had to question whether government could truly work for them, even as they have seen dysfunctional and bitter politics, their advocacy on behalf of themselves and their future deserves its own recognition. The world watched as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida organize the March For Our Lives rally bringing together almost 2 million people across the world to demand that Congress act on gun safety legislation. That rally became one of the largest student-led organizations since the Vietnam War.
From the Women’s March to the Black Lives Matter marches around the globe, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation of our time has shown up time and time again, demanding that we do better. Whether it’s the movements for gun reform, environmental protection, racial justice, or your local baristas fight to join a union, young people are demonstrating their willingness to be the force, the energy, and the face of change.
While this is true across the nation, it is especially true in my home state of California, the state home to the largest number of Gen Z-ers in our country.
One of them is Kamarie Brown, a 20 year old student now at Spelman College who discovered a passion for education equity. At just 17 years old, she was the first black female ever to be selected to the students seat on the Los Angeles County School Board, the second largest school district in our nation. It’s thanks to Kamarie’s leadership that students in L.A. have access to greater resources that they need to thrive. She secured unanimous support for resolutions that leverage district funding to improve communities around her beyond the walls of Crenshaw High School. It’s young leaders like Kamarie, who don’t sit on their hands and stand idle as the world passes them by. It’s the stories of Generation Now who believe that their lives can add up to something more that truly inspires me. Madam President, as I take my seat, I offer again the clarion call that was shared with this body and the world almost three years ago to the day. On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman the youngest person ever to serve as the inaugural poet said this:
‘We are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean that we are striving to forge a union that is perfect. We are striving to form a union with purpose. To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man. And we lift our gaze not to what stands between us, but to what stands before us. We close the divide because we know to put our futures first, we must first put our differences aside.’
If our children are our future, let us be urgent about the promise of America. It must be that we put our future first because their lives are depending on us today. Madam President, I yield the floor.