Alex Padilla will replace Kamala Harris in the US Senate

Written By: Shawn Hubler © 2020 The New York Times Company The New York Times
Sacramento, California, United States of America Updated: Dec 23, 2020, 03:22 PM(IST)

Alex Padilla and Kamala Harris Photograph:( Twitter )

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The son of Mexican-born immigrants who settled in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California, where Latinos are about 40% of the population.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Alex Padilla, California’s secretary of state, has been appointed to fill the Senate seat held by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, capping months of intense political jockeying among Democratic factions in the state.

The son of Mexican-born immigrants who settled in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California, where Latinos are about 40% of the population.

“I am honored and humbled by the trust placed in me by Governor Newsom, and I intend to work each and every day to honor that trust and deliver for all Californians,” Padilla said in a statement.

In an interview, Padilla said he was overwhelmed with emotion Monday evening when the governor offered him the position on a Zoom call. “There is a lot of work to get to, of course, but I couldn’t help but think of my parents, who came here from Mexico in pursuit of the American dream,” he said. “All I ever heard as a child was work hard, study hard, and all I ever wanted to do was honor their sacrifices.”

Padilla, an ally of the governor throughout his political career, has held public office since 1999, when he was elected at 26 to the Los Angeles City Council; he went on to serve two terms in the state Senate and then two terms as secretary of state, heading the office that runs California’s elections.

“Through his tenacity, integrity, smarts and grit, California is gaining a tested fighter in their corner who will be a fierce ally in D.C., lifting up our state’s values and making sure we secure the critical resources to emerge stronger from this pandemic,” Newsom said. “He will be a senator for all Californians.”

The decision followed months of deliberation by Newsom and lobbying by California’s myriad political factions for a position whose occupant will need not only the experience to work effectively in Washington but also the money and political base to hold the seat in 2022, when Harris’ term ends.

California progressives had pushed Newsom to appoint Rep. Barbara Lee or another like-minded Democrat. Newsom was also under pressure to appoint a Black woman to take the place of Harris, the only Black woman in the Senate. Rep. Karen Bass and Lee were at the top of that list.

As weeks passed after the presidential election, the back-channel advocacy that had gone on since Harris was chosen as the running mate of President-elect Joe Biden broke into the open with public endorsements, full-page newspaper ads and open letters. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus strongly backed Padilla. The LGBTQ community and Equality California lobbied for Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach. Black Women United, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a range of Black elected officials pushed for Bass or Lee.

On Twitter, Lee congratulated Padilla as “a skilled legislator and a steadfast advocate for justice,” Bass cheered “another historic barrier shattered“ and Garcia promised his “100 percent support in his 2022 reelection.”

Nathalie Rayes, president and chief executive of the Latino Victory Fund, which had campaigned for Padilla, called the appointment “a long-overdue milestone for the Latino community” and a “bold step toward having a Senate that looks like the communities it serves.” She added, “His appointment will not only increase Latino representation in the Senate, but it will also open the door for future generations of Latino leaders.”

Leading California Republicans were less impressed. “One of the worst election officials in the nation will go to DC, unelected!!!” tweeted Harmeet Dhillon, a conservative civil rights lawyer and member of the Republican National Committee.

California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, had endorsed Padilla, who had worked in her field office early in his career and on Tuesday she called the appointment “an excellent choice.” In the run-up to his appointment, some interest groups had called for Feinstein herself to step down, so that the governor could pick two senators — a call that gained traction after a New Yorker article this month suggested that Feinstein, 87, was experiencing cognitive decline.

The elevation of Padilla leaves Newsom with a vacancy in the secretary of state’s office, which was viewed throughout the deliberation as a potential consolation prize for at least one disappointed contender.

On Tuesday afternoon, a person close to the governor’s office said he planned to appoint Shirley Weber, a veteran California assemblywoman and chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus. The daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers, Weber presided last week as the state’s 55 electors sealed the presidency for Biden and had pushed hard for a Black woman to be named as Harris’ replacement.

Newsom will also have to appoint a new attorney general if the Senate confirms Xavier Becerra’s nomination as Biden’s secretary of health and human services.

That state post has in recent years served as a springboard for higher office; besides Becerra, recent attorneys general include Harris and California’s previous governor, Jerry Brown.

Alex Vassar, a legislative historian at the California State Library, said the last California governor to fill three statewide offices was Earl Warren, who in December 1952 and January 1953 appointed a new senator, a state controller and a member of the state Board of Equalization. Pat Brown also made three appointments in 1964 and 1965, Vassar said, but one was simply to speed up an incoming senator’s arrival.

In sending Padilla to the Senate, Newsom chose a Democrat from his own generation who stood by the governor and shored up his Latino support in several critical races. He also chose an experienced candidate who has twice been elected statewide and whose work since 2014 has considerably expanded the ease of voting in California and the size of the electorate.

The middle child of a short-order cook from Jalisco, Mexico, and a housekeeper from Chihuahua, Padilla was raised in Los Angeles and graduated in 1994 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, working his way through school with janitorial jobs and work-study programs. Though his degree was in mechanical engineering, his plan to become an aerospace engineer was derailed by the anti-immigrant politics gripping his home state during the 1990s.

Inspired by a summer job helping Latino high school students prepare for college and galvanized by Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative that would have barred immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally from public services including schools and nonemergency health care, Padilla applied for a fellowship with the leadership development program for Coro, a nonprofit organization.

Before that, “I wouldn’t say I had ever dreamed of running for office, but I knew I’d have to do my part, or our community would continue to be scapegoated,” he said in an interview last month.

Padilla worked as a community organizer for Art Torres, who would later lead the state Democratic Party (and who also mentored Becerra). He went on to run legislative campaigns for two Latino politicians in Los Angeles and work in Feinstein’s field office before winning his seat on the Los Angeles City Council, with support from the city’s Latino-dominated labor unions. By 2001, he was the council’s youngest president.

In 2003, when Newsom was running for mayor of San Francisco, Padilla introduced him to Los Angeles contacts and helped buttress his position against a Latino opponent. A few years later, as a member of the state Senate, Padilla ran Newsom’s 2009 bid for governor before Jerry Brown got into the race and Newsom dropped out, running instead for lieutenant governor.

In 2018, he stood by Newsom yet again, endorsing him early in a crowded primary that included former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles.

As secretary of state, Padilla promised to register a million new California voters; the state has added more than 4 million as a result of legislation he backed that registers Californians to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.

As a state legislator, Padilla also supported universal health care, reproductive choice, expanding green manufacturing and solar power, and laws that tracked stolen guns and prevented felons from possessing body armor.

His first order of business in the Senate, he said, would be “COVID, COVID, COVID.” “There are of course big issues at hand, but we can’t fully address them until we get control of this pandemic,” he said.

A father of three, Padilla and his wife, Angela, live in the San Fernando Valley. His mother died three years ago, he said, but he, his father and his siblings live within five miles of one another. His sister works for the Los Angeles public school system, and his younger brother is chief of staff to the president of the Los Angeles City Council.

“We’re all in public service, and to me that’s not a coincidence,” Padilla said. He cited the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on communities of color, inequities in digital literacy and “the long-standing need for comprehensive immigration reform” as issues that he was “eager to play a role in.”

“I love public service and I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, and I’d like to continue as long as I’m effective and they’ll continue to have me,” he said.

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