OAKLAND — Gov. Gavin Newsom is appointing California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to the U.S. Senate, elevating his longtime Democratic ally after months of fierce jockeying for the position and giving the state its first Latino senator.
From the moment President-elect Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, California politicians began positioning themselves for the possible Senate opening. The lobbying around Newsom has intensified since Biden’s victory, with various groups representing different constituencies urging the governor to appoint a Latino, a Black woman or another representative of California’s diversity.
In the end, Newsom chose the long-presumed frontrunner in Padilla, who has long supported Newsom’s political ambitions and offered the historic opportunity in a state where Latinos are a plurality at 40 percent of the population.
Padilla said in an interview that his long-term policy priorities in the Senate would include health care, climate change, cybersecurity and voting rights. The more immediate imperative, he said, is assembling another coronavirus aid package.
“We need more,” he said. “Families are going to need more.”
At 47 years old, Padilla could have a long tenure in the Senate, given that Democrats have a significant advantage in voter registration — 46 percent compared to the Republicans’ 24 percent. No Republican has won statewide office in California since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 and none has held a California U.S. Senate seat since 1992.
Padilla brings decades of governance experience to the post. That resume helped establish him as the pick favored by much of California’s Democratic establishment — a position solidified by a public endorsement from his former boss, Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
He said Tuesday he wasn’t sure when he would be sworn in as senator. Harris has not specified yet when she will vacate her seat.
Harris’ term expires in 2022, which means Padilla will have to run for election that year to secure another his first full term. He wasted no time Tuesday in launching that effort, establishing a Senate campaign account Tuesday morning and soliciting donations for “#TeamPadilla” from supporters.
A Democrat from Los Angeles, Padilla served in the California Legislature before becoming California’s top elections official. In that role he has pursued various measures to boost voter turnout and engagement, including his advocacy for automatic voter registration and an expansion of mail voting.
Padilla has also been at the vanguard of California’s opposition to President Donald Trump, regularly assailing the president’s inaccurate claims about voter fraud in California. His political advocacy has at times generated controversy, as when his office awarded a $35 million voter outreach contract this year to a Biden-affiliated firm.
Padilla belongs to a generation of Latino populations who came of political age in the crucible of battles over California ballot initiatives to cut off services to undocumented immigrants and outlaw affirmative action.
“The message was clear: the state of California is struggling and it’s the fault of families like yours and people like your parents,” Padilla said of what he was hearing from people in power at the time. “I knew right then and there I had to do something to change it.”
While the state Legislature’s Latino caucus has steadily grown in the years since and produced multiple Latino legislative leaders, as has the number of Latinos in California’s House delegation, no Latino had yet won a U.S. Senate seat. Former State Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, now a Los Angeles city council member, lost his intraparty challenge to Feinstein in 2018; former Rep. Loretta Sanchez lost to Harris in 2016.
In a recording of a Monday night video call in which Newsom told Padilla he was appointing him to the seat, an emotional Padilla hearkened to his background as the child of immigrants.
“I can’t tell you how many pancakes my dad flipped or eggs he scrambled trying to provide for us, or the many, many years of my mom cleaning houses doing the same thing,” Padilla tells Newsom. “That’s why I try so hard to make sure that our democracy is as inclusive in California as we’ve built, and it’s a hell of important perspective to bring to Washington.”
Labor unions and Latino organizations lauded the selection, saying that he would represent working class Californians. “Today stands out as a landmark day,” said David Huerta on behalf of Service Employees International Union California. “When we send Alex Padilla to Washington as our first Latino U.S. Senator, he will carry with him the dreams of his own parents and the millions of immigrants working in jobs as cooks and cleaners, jobs with dignity but too little pay and respect.”
But Newsom frustrated people who wanted him to replace Harris with an African American woman like Rep. Karen Bass. Once Harris leaves for the Biden administration, there will not be a Black woman in the Senate, and the calls to replace Harris with another Black woman became increasingly public in recent days as officials like Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) weighed in.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed was the most notable critic given that she leads the major city from which Newsom and Harris hailed — and did not equivocate Tuesday in her disappointment.
Breed said that given the challenges Black people face in America, “definitely this was a real blow to the African American community, to African American women, to women in general. And I think it’s really challenging to put it in words. But it was definitely a surprise and it’s an unfortunate situation as we are trying to move this country forward and making sure that Black lives truly do matter.”
Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, an advocacy group that lobbied hard for Rep. Barbara Lee or Bass to fill Harris’ seat, said her supporters “ran into a brick wall” with Newsom on the appointment.
She said she’s looking ahead and believes pressure should mount to convince California’s senior senator, Feinstein, to step aside. Recent reports, starting with a POLITICO story in September up through a New Yorker article this month, have highlighted concerns about the senator’s memory challenges and recent missteps. And progressives have skewered Feinstein ever since the Amy Coney Barrett Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“I’ve been saying Feinstein really needs to vacate that office and step down and gracefully advocate for a person of color,” Allison said.
Padilla’s move to the Senate means Newsom has two additional statewide offices to fill. The governor will need to replace Padilla as secretary of state, and he is vetting contenders to replace outgoing Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whom Biden has appointed to be U.S. Health and Human Services secretary.
That game of musical chairs gives Newsom possible opportunities to satisfy groups who will be disappointed by his choice of Padilla. The governor will likely face even more intense pressure to appoint a Black woman to one of the two posts. But Asian and Pacific Islander lawmakers are urging Newsom to fill the attorney general job with someone from their caucus, while LGBT groups are also advocating for a gay or lesbian statewide appointment.