Laphonza Butler’s EMILY’s List Spends Millions on Kamala Harris While Laying Off Grassroots Staff

Two months before the layoffs, EMILY’s List announced a 2024 plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to back Harris, a Butler ally.

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 23: Emily's List President Laphonza Butler address a Biden-Harris campaign rally on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson decision which struck down a federal right to abortion at the Mayflower Hotel on June 23, 2023 in Washington, DC. The campaign event was organized by NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY's List. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Emily’s List President Laphonza Butler addresses a Biden–Harris campaign rally on the first anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision on June 23, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom appointed EMILY’s List President Laphonza Butler to the U.S. Senate. Butler will fill the seat of former Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died on Friday. The news came less than a month after EMILY’s List, then under Butler’s leadership, laid off eight people, citing budget deficits ahead of a major election year.

Layoffs were announced in September, just over a year before the 2024 elections. The influential Democratic Party-aligned organization cut five staff members from the training and community engagement team, which ran outreach to grassroots candidates and voters; two people from the digital team; and another person on the state and local campaigns team. Several staff members who were laid off and not part of the union were asked to sign nondisclosure agreements in order to receive severance. Last week, EMILY’s List shut down Run to Win, its national recruitment and training program.

“Staff trainings like the ones EMILY’s List has run for years are essential for high quality campaigns.”

A source with knowledge of the layoffs, who asked for anonymity to protect their professional relationships, said Butler billed the layoffs as part of a change in the organization’s scope and scale, but that they signaled a major shift in priorities away from outreach to grassroots candidates in the lead-up to a critical election year. 

“Staff trainings like the ones EMILY’s List has run for years are essential for high quality campaigns,” said Gabe Tobias, the co-founder of Movement School, a sister organization of Justice Democrats. “Scaling these back going into a critical election year would be a big loss for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.”

The layoffs came on the heels of broader organizational restructuring in the spring. EMILY’s List cut the position of vice president of research and split the department in two. Another source with knowledge of the restructuring, who requested anonymity for the same reason, said staff was told at the time of the restructuring that there would not be layoffs.

Layoffs in September cut people who weren’t fundraising or working with an endorsed candidate.

Two months before the layoffs, EMILY’s List announced one of its biggest priorities for 2024: a plan to spend tens of millions of dollars to back the reelection of Vice President Kamala Harris, a close ally of Butler’s. A portion of the group’s limited resources will go to boosting Harris as her approval ratings drag below that of her predecessors. 

EMILY’s List also runs a separate Twitter account, “Madam Vice President,” dedicated to pumping up Harris’s image. Butler, who joined EMILY’s List in September 2021, was senior adviser to Harris’s 2020 presidential campaign. EMILY’s List spent $10 million backing Harris after her vice presidential nomination that year. 

“At this time, we are prioritizing our resources to the efforts most central to the EMILYs List’s mission: electing a diverse group Democratic pro-choice women in targeted seats,” said EMILY’s List spokesperson Christina Reynolds. “This required another look at our budget for the cycle, revisiting our focus and our scope and making some tough choices, including having to cut specific functions and lay off some valued colleagues.”

The second source said they were puzzled by other financial decisions in the lead-up to layoffs, which were first reported by HuffPost shortly after The Intercept made a press inquiry. The source said there were questions about spending on conferences and consultants. They said Butler and former Executive Director Emily Cain, who left in April, had trouble attracting big donors during a widespread Democratic fundraising slump, but that the organization found success in appealing to older and more moderate voters through Harris.

During a time when staff across the Democratic fundraising spectrum are having trouble connecting with donors, Harris’s role as the first female vice president plays well, they said. Consultants on contract for EMILY’s List worked on Harris’s brand and frequently posted content praising her on both the pro-Harris and main organizational Twitter accounts. 

“All the Kamala stuff does really, really well,” they said. “I think part of it is like, the base is eating it up any Kamala graphics we’re putting out.”

“Caught Us Off Guard”

EMILY’s List’s restructuring began in the spring. Twelve departments were merged into five to reduce the number of siloed functions within the organization. In April, Cain left, and vice president of campaigns Jessica Mackler and Reynolds, the vice president of communications, were promoted to senior vice presidents in their departments. (Cain started a consulting company in July.) 

The role of vice president of research was replaced with a senior director of research, and the former vice president of research left in March. The department was split across two others: campaign and opposition research, and communications and fact-checking research. Several research staff later left on their own. The organization also hired a new senior vice president and chief of staff, Michelle White, who joined in July. 

Butler’s background as a labor leader made her handling of the organization’s restructuring and later news of layoffs more disappointing, said a former EMILY’s List employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect personal relationships. Prior to joining EMILY’s List, Butler was director for public policy and campaigns at Airbnb. She was previously president of both the SEIU California State Council and the state’s largest union, SEIU Local 2015, which represents home care and nursing home workers.


A Group of Progressive Women Just Launched a Working-Class Version of EMILY’s List

The former employee disagreed with Butler’s approach to the restructuring, relying on outside consultants rather than on the employees doing the organization’s work. 

“It caught us off guard for sure,” the source said. “She comes from such a prominent labor background, I and my team members definitely expected more of her.” 

Since the restructuring, the group has spent more time talking about Harris. In June, Butler told Politico that EMILY’s List was focused on reminding voters why they should support the vice president. 

“We’re going to tell the story about who she is, what she’s done, support her at every turn and really push back against the massive misinformation and disinformation that’s been directed towards her since she’s been elected,” Butler said.

Boosting Harris makes sense for a fundraising organization dedicated to electing women, the second source said. It still struck them as odd how many resources were dedicated to backing Harris in a position that’s an afterthought for many voters.

“EMILY’s List is doing a lot of stuff for the vice president, which I always thought was weird,” they said. “I know the vice president is an elected position, I just don’t really view it that way.”

Join The Conversation