Laphonza Butler is California’s new senator following the death of longtime leader Dianne Feinstein.
Butler, appearing at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Monday, discussed the surreal feeling of getting a call from California Governor Gavin Newsom offering her a Senate seat.
Fortune’s Emma Hinchliffe asked Butler if being appointed as a U.S. senator was on her vision board. Butler answered: “Not on my vision board, not on my bingo card, not in the wildest dreams of my ancestors.” The cheering audience gave her a standing ovation.
Butler said she didn’t have much time to mull over Newsom’s offer, given the “imminent government shutdown.” But after speaking with her wife, she made the decision to accept his offer, and the honor of serving in the seat that Feinstein held for decades.
“It was an opportunity for me to again raise my hand at a moment of crisis for our country,” Butler said.
She expressed admiration for Senator Feinstein, who was elected in 1992 and served until her recent death at age 90.
“I am not so audacious as to believe that I will be able to contribute as much as the Senator did in her decades of service,” Butler said. “My life has always been an example for women and girls and their economic empowerment and I want to continue that.”
Historic moment for Senate
After being sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris last week, she became the first openly lesbian, Black senator to serve in Congress, the third Black woman to serve in the Senate, and the only Black woman currently serving in the Senate.
“I only know how to be a Black woman,” Butler said. “I don’t know anything else, and so I don’t know how to lead any other way. So I think what those milestones really mean for me, and hopefully serve as an example for other Black women, other lesbians, others who just want to live their life their own way.”
Butler’s mother celebrated her 70th birthday this year, and she took her on their first solo mother-daughter trip. Butler thought that trip was a big deal for her mother, but it wasn’t until she saw her mother in the U.S. Capitol, with Senator Cory Booker and Representative Lauren Underwood, that she saw how proud she was.
“I never thought that the day that I would recognize and see pride in my mother’s eyes would be when she was walking up to shake the hands of the vice president, who was swearing her daughter, her youngest child, in as the third Black woman to serve in the senators’ chamber, and so it means a lot to me. It means a lot to my family,” Butler said.
Butler laughed and recounted that her nine-year-old daughter chose not to come to her swearing in because she wanted to go camping. And, apparently, it was her first time camping without her parents. Butler may have tried to coax her into going, telling her that the vice president would be there, but her daughter just told her to say ‘hi’ for her.
2024 remains a mystery
Butler hopes her appointment means something to young girls, and it demonstrates what is possible. Although Butler recognized that it’s time for a new generation of leaders, and maybe more so lawmakers, it’s been a gift to learn from Feinstein, and former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“We can’t be for representation and inclusion, without representation and inclusion,” Butler said. “And we should take the opportunity to learn from those who have led before us, so that we can do better the next time.”
As for what she’ll bring to the table, amid continued uncertainty given the events of the past weekend, is the story of California, she said—one that represents innovation and hope. Butler declined to comment on whether she’ll run for Senate in 2024.
“It is an early job for me,” Butler answered, after Hinchliffe asked if the job was temporary. “It is day six. I literally went through orientation, which is usually three days, in like four hours. So I would say it’s an early job for me. But my life has been one that has been dedicated to service, and that is my commitment.”