Cassandra Butts, addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in October 2015
Courtesy of the Butts family

Cassandra Quin Butts, the former deputy White House counsel and a nominee to the ambassadorship to the Bahamas, died suddenly Thursday. She was 50 years old.

A statement from Butts’ family says that she suffered from a “brief illness” and that she was found by her sister at her Washington, D.C., home.

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Butts attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and was his deputy counsel during his first year in office. She left the following year when the president named her a senior adviser to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a foreign aid agency.

In February 2014, Obama tapped Butts to be the U.S. ambassador to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas; as she awaited a recalcitrant Republican-led Senate confirmation, she also served as a U.S. representative to the General Assembly of the United Nations.

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A longtime public servant, Butts previously worked as senior vice president for domestic policy at the Center for American Progress; as counsel and policy director to House Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt; as deputy executive director of the Democratic Policy Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives; and as associate counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Butts received a B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

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The president and Michelle Obama released a statement on her passing Friday afternoon, in which President Obama described Butts as a longtime friend “who made you want to be better.”

“Cassandra and I met as law students, and we quickly discovered a shared passion for jazz— and for public service,” said President Obama. “It was a passion she’d chase for the rest of her life—on Capitol Hill, at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and as an advisor of mine—but above all, as a citizen, 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.”

He added: “She made America better. She made so many lives better, including ours. We admired her so much. And we will miss her deeply.”

Secretary of State John Kerry also released a statement expressing his profound “sorrow and shock.”

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Butts was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and moved to North Carolina at age 9. She is survived by her mother, Mae A. Karim; father, Charles Norman Butts; sister, Deidra Abbott; nephews, Alston and Ethan Abbott; and a host of family, including aunts, uncles and cousins. She was preceded in death by her stepfather, Abdul Karim.

Butts was described by her family as having “a wicked sense of humor” and being a staunch lover of jazz, photography and film. Butts was also described as a woman who had a passion for knowledge, travel, civil rights, the UNC Tarheels, tennis and any activity with her two dear nephews.

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Rest well, sister.