Newsom appoints Alex Padilla to fill Harris' Senate seat

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California Secretary of State Alex Padilla speaks in San Francisco. | AP Photo/Eric Risberg

12/22/2020 01:00 PM EST

Updated 12/22/2020 02:06 PM EST

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 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, 47, could have a long tenure in the Senate seat, 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 one of California’s two Senate seats since 1992.

Padilla brings decades of governance experience to the post. That résumé 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.

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. While the state Legislature’s Latino caucus has steadily grown 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.”

Newsom was bound to disappoint 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.

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.

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