Newsom has a senate seat to fill. Who is ready for the job?
To say that Gov. Gavin Newsom is under pressure is an understatement.
The chance to appoint someone to the U.S. Senate does not come along often. It has happened only a handful of times before, most recently in 1991, and it represents an opportunity to install an official that could serve in one of the most powerful government bodies for, potentially, decades. The governor must name a successor to the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate and the first woman to ever be elected vice president.
It’s an historic appointment, and everybody has an idea of who they want to fill the spot.
Some political leaders are calling for the next senator to be a Black woman, such as U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee or Karen Bass. Others want an LGBTQ appointment. Newsom faces particular pressure to appoint California’s first Latino to the U.S. Senate.Latino elected officials and leaders from Latino progressive groups this week told the governor that the state is “long overdue” for a Latino senator, especially given that Latinos represent a plurality in the state.
“He’s going to consider all of those kinds of things in his general list,” said Bill Carrick, a longtime Democratic political consultant who has managed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaigns since the 1990s. “But it’s probably going to be about who he thinks is best prepared to do the job.”
“My sense is that he’s going to look at somebody who has serious experience in elected office,” Carrick added.
Harris’ tenure in the Senate has been short compared to Feinstein, who has served since 1992, and former Sen. Barbara Boxer, who served for 24 years before retiring in 2017. But even during her short stay, the vice president-elect has been able to garner attention for her work on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
Harris’ experience as District Attorney of San Francisco and then California’s Attorney General influenced her appointment to those spots, Carrick said. Feinstein has also long held a spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and was the first woman to do so.
“So it’s those considerations about whether somebody should make history with what they do,” Carrick said.
Newsom is likely to choose someone with experience in winning statewide races, said Garry South, a California political consultant who has served under two governors and ran Newsom’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2008.
“You don’t want someone who has no electoral experience whatsoever. I think that’s a risk,” he said. “It would be good if they had a sort of background that, even though they may not be well-known to the public here in California, you could justify as qualifying to be in the U.S. Senate.”
Newsom could draw from current Latino leaders
Roger Salazar, a Sacramento-based Democratic media strategist, doesn’t envy the position Newsom is in. Salazar said it would be wise for Newsom, who is known to make historic appointments, to choose a Latino to fill Harris’ seat.
While Latinos have made strides in the state Legislature and represent 40% of the population, California has never elected a Latino to the U.S. Senate in its 170-year history.
“It would be wise to have somebody in the U.S. Senate who can sort of see and represent the needs of such a huge population in California,” he said, especially as California Latinos continue to be disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
The pressure for Newsom to select someone from the LGBT community may be “somewhat relieved,” according to Salazar, after he appointed the first openly gay justice Martin J. Jenkins on the California Supreme Court in October.
Salazar said Attorney General Xavier Becerra, with his previous experience as a congressman, and Secretary of State Alex Padilla, are both worthy candidates.
Padilla is “the kind of person that has the gravitas, that has the temperament,” he said. “When you look at him it’s like, ‘All right, he’s got the complete package to make an outstanding U.S. Senator.’ ”
If Newsom selects Padilla for the position, Salazar said it could open up the opportunity for Newsom to choose his replacement as secretary of state. He noted Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who is a contender in the 2022 California secretary of state race, would make a historic appointment as a Latina.
Will personal histories play a role?
Newsom also has a years-long relationship with Padilla, who was actively involved in his first gubernatorial campaign in 2008 and 2009. Then-state senator Padilla was Newsom’s statewide campaign chair: traveling with the governor, introducing him at town halls, and attending fundraising events.
Becerra, who was appointed to his current job by former Gov. Jerry Brown, doesn’t have the same history with Newsom.
“You don’t have to be a close personal friend of the governor, but I do think it helps if the governor has some familiarity with you and has a long-standing relationship with you and trusts your judgment and has confidence in your ability to win the seat in your own right,” South said.
California-based Republican political strategist Luis Alvarado said a Latino, particularly Padilla, is at the top of the list to replace Harris.
“As the state continues to grow, the state must have a conduit, a bridge that allows those young Latinos to feel included into the vision of what California is going to be in the future,” he said. “What better candidate to represent this large growing group, then somebody from their own community to represent them in Washington, DC.”
Padilla, he said, is one of the few candidates who has support among Democrats, Republicans and moderates.
Alvarado said Becerra is also a strong contender but believes he’d serve the community and state better in the Biden administration or continue in his role as California’s attorney general.
Even if Padilla wasn’t a Latino, Alvarado believes the governor would have a hard time explaining why he didn’t select him as Harris’ successor due to his political pedigree and experience as secretary of state.
“In the end, I think he has to commit to a Latino candidate, because that is the future of California,” Alvarado said. “The Latino community will not be happy with him if he does not pick a Latino.”
Preparing for the 2022 midterms
Whoever is appointed to Harris’ seat will have to quickly turn around and face an election in 2022. The other California senators in recent history who gained their seat by a governor’s appointment — Pierre Salinger in 1964 and John Seymour in 1991 — both lost their reelection races.
Whoever Newsom appoints will have to be ready to run a statewide campaign by the June 2022 primaries, and is likely to compete against a rash of qualified Democrats.
“You can’t appoint a political novice, there’s too little time to get up to speed,” South said. “It would be a huge risk to appoint some business person without a political background, or somebody who is a civic leader who has never run for office before.”
A Harris replacement must also be up the task of running offices in a state as massive as California, Carrick said.
“You end up having to run a bunch of offices all across the state,” he said. “So the importance of having really good staff work both in California and Washington is essential.”
A member of Congress, such as Lee or Bass, would meet many of the necessary qualifications for U.S. Senate, but may pose other problems. With a slim majority in the House of Representatives, Democrats may not want to lose a member, even if it’s in a solidly-held district.
“If you pick someone who is a sitting member of Congress, even if it’s a heavily Democratic seat, that seat’s going to be vacant for four or five or six months until you have a primary or a runoff in a special election,” South said. “If I was Nancy Pelosi, I wouldn’t be particularly happy about Democrats vacating another seat where she already has razor-thin majority to deal with the U.S. House.”
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Lara Korte covers California politics for The Sacramento Bee. Before joining The Bee, she reported on Texas higher education for the Austin American-Statesman. She is a graduate of the University of Kansas.
Kim Bojórquez joined The Sacramento Bee’s Capitol Bureau as a Report for America corps member in 2020. She covers Latino communities in California. Before joining The Bee, she worked for Deseret News in Salt Lake City.