LOS ANGELES – California is getting its first Latino U.S. senator. For Gov. Gavin Newsom, it’s a political gamble.
The Democratic governor Tuesday named Secretary of State Alex Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. When Padilla goes to Washington, the former state legislator will become California’s first Latino senator since the state’s founding 170 years ago.
In picking a personal friend and fellow Democrat, Newsom had his eye on history and pragmatism — he turned to someone he could trust with a year of uncertainty looming, including a possible recall election targeting the governor while the pandemic rages unabated.
Newsom also rejected pleas from a host of prominent Black leaders to replace Harris, the Senate’s only Black woman, with another African American woman, such as U.S. Reps. Karen Bass or Barbara Lee.
About six hours after the Padilla announcement, Newsom’s office said he would nominate Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who is Black, to be the next secretary of state. If confirmed, she would become the first Black woman to hold the office, giving Newsom two history-making picks in one day.
Given the timing, however, it appeared the choice was intended at least partly to quell criticism for not choosing a Black woman to replace Harris.
“Many people believe the governor will pay a political price,” Kerman Maddox, a Democratic consultant and fundraiser who is Black, said in an email. “It’s a terribly insensitive decision” with the nation in the midst of a reckoning over racial injustice.
“If Governor Newsom thinks our disappointment with the Kamala Harris replacement will be tempered by appointing an African American woman to be California secretary of state, he clearly does not know this constituency,” Maddox added. “When I heard the news about the secretary of state appointment, my anger meter went from disappointment to being downright angry.”
Black San Francisco Mayor London Breed called the Senate decision “a real blow to the African American community.”
The hectic day of political maneuvers only underscored the risks that came with them.
The mannerly, soft-spoken Padilla will begin his truncated term facing the prospect of a tough reelection fight in 2022, when he is likely to see challengers from within his own party in the heavily Democratic state. Padilla’s current job was also being eyed by other possible contenders, who could challenge Weber if she is confirmed by the Legislature. Beyond a possible recall, Newsom is expected to seek a second term in 2022.
Padilla quickly formed a political committee to begin raising money and released a campaign-style ad introducing himself as the new senator.
It frames him as the epitome of the American dream, the son of immigrant parents — a short-order cook who never went to high school and a housekeeper — who earned an engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He became a political prodigy of sorts when he was elevated to president of Los Angeles City Council president at 28, the youngest ever, before being elected to the Legislature and then secretary of state.
Newsom called him a “tested fighter” who would be a fierce ally for the state in Washington. Harris congratulated Padilla in a tweet, calling him a “dear friend” who would be a champion for California.
There were common threads connecting the most visible contenders for the soon-to-be vacant seat: blue-chip resumes and racially diverse backgrounds that would stand out in a chamber filled with mostly older, white men.
But Padilla had an asset no one else would bring to the job. He is a close friend and political confidant of the governor — Padilla ran Newsom’s aborted 2009 campaign for governor and was an early supporter when he ran again in 2018.
With Padilla, Newsom gets a political soul mate and a loyalist. A brief video that captured the moment when Newsom offered Padilla the post revealed their familiar, almost brotherly rapport: That’s what Newsom called him at one point, “brother.”
In an interview, Padilla said he believed their personal relationship was “absolutely” a factor in his selection, describing them as “good partners.”
He said he had known Newsom since his days on the Los Angeles council, when the governor was mayor of San Francisco. Then they worked together when he was in the Legislature and Newsom was lieutenant governor, and more recently in their current roles.
Padilla will become part of an ascendant class of Latinos going to Washington with the arrival of Biden administration, which will include California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, the president-elect’s pick for health secretary.
The Padilla pick, while straining ties with some Black leaders, was widely praised by Latinos, the state's largest single demographic group, representing about 40% of the population of 40 million.
“I do think for the Latino community it is a historic moment,” Padilla said.
As the state's chief elections officer, Padilla gained a national reputation for voting reform and presided at a time of record voter enrollment and participation. Under his watch, the state hit 22 million registered voters.
While in the state Senate, he was known for his involvement in environmental and health and safety issues, including phasing out single-use plastic bags and requiring restaurants to disclose nutritional information on their menus.
Padilla lives in Los Angeles with his wife and three sons, ages 5, 7 and 13.
Padilla was welcomed by Republicans with a blast of criticism for awarding a $35 million voter education contract ahead of the November election to SKDKnickerbocker, a firm with ties to Joe Biden’s campaign. The payment has been held up by the state controller.
In 2022 “we are confident voters will reject a Los Angeles liberal career politician,” Orange County Republican Party Chairman Fred Whitaker said in a statement.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Ronayne in Sacramento and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed.