Cassandra Q. Butts
The civil rights, legal and political communities this week memorialized Cassandra Q. Butts, an attorney, advocate and longtime confidante to President Barack Obama who died May 25 at her Washington, D.C., home at the age of 50.
Family members told The Washington Post that Butts’ illness progressed so quickly that she died before doctors returned a diagnosis of acute leukemia. Many, including the Obamas, said they were stunned by her sudden death.
“To know Cassandra Butts was to know someone who made you want to be better,” the president and First Lady said in a statement at the time of her passing. “Always pushing, always doing her part to advance the causes of opportunity, civil rights, development, and democracy. Cassandra was someone who put her hands squarely on that arc of the moral universe, and never stopped doing whatever she could to bend it towards justice.”
On June 7, the president eulogized Butts during a memorial service at Washington D.C.’s historic Metropolitan AME Church. He said he first met Butts in 1988 while making their way through the financial aid line at Harvard Law School. They bonded over their love of jazz, sports, civic engagement and the law, and became fast and lifelong friends.
Butts was among those who encouraged Obama to run for president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990, according to the Post; he became the first African American to hold that position. Butts also served as an advisor and facilitator during his time as a U.S. senator, his historic run for the presidency and his two terms in the White House. Butts helped assemble Obama’s team and craft policy initiatives, among other efforts. As his White House deputy counsel, she also played a key role in the historic appointment of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
“She was one of my most valuable utility players. She was like a Swiss Army Knife—whatever you needed, you could find,” the president said of the woman he called his “moral compass.”
Butts was also remembered by others who shared or were otherwise touched by her life’s journey.
“Cassandra Butts was an extremely talented and versatile attorney and dedicated public servant,” Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow said in a statement. “We are deeply saddened by her death. She was also a beloved friend and builder of communities. Taken much too soon, she will remain an inspiring individual of vision and passion to all privileged to know her and to know of her.”
Cassandra Quin Butts was born Aug. 10, 1965, in Brooklyn. Her father, Charles N. Butts, was a businessman and her mother, Mae A. Karim, was an accountant. When she was nine years old, her family moved to Durham, N.C.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1987. While at UNC she participated in anti-apartheid protests. After college, she worked for a year as a researcher with the African News Service before attending Harvard Law School, where she continued her activism before receiving her law degree in 1991.
After graduating from Harvard Law, Butts worked for Sen. Harris Wofford (D-Pa.) as his legislative counsel. She left in 1995 to join the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), where she focused on civil rights policy and litigated voting rights and school desegregation cases in LDF’s D.C. office.
“There are no words to describe the tragic loss of Cassandra Butts,” Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the LDF, said in a statement. “Her devotion to civil rights was evident in everything she accomplished, and her passion for public service was an inspiration to all who had the privilege of working with her.”
In 1998, Butts returned to Capitol Hill to work for Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), the House Minority Leader at the time. According to an LDF bio, during that stint she provided strategic advice to the House Democratic Policy Committee on a range of issues including the 1998 impeachment hearings of President Bill Clinton and legislation relating to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She also helped to vet judicial nominees.
Butts took a brief sabbatical in 2000 to serve as an observer in the Zimbabwean parliamentary elections.
In 2004, Butts was named senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress, where she stayed until 2008.
In November 2009, Butts became a senior advisor at the Millennium Challenge Corp., an independent government agency that develops recommendations on U.S. foreign aid to developing countries.
On Feb. 7, 2014, Obama nominated Butts to be the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas. The nomination process never advanced past a committee hearing. While she awaited confirmation, Butts served as senior advisor to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations until her death.
Butts is survived by her parents and a sister, Deidra Abbott of Severna Park, Md.