Alex Padilla Will Replace Kamala Harris in the Senate
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 on Tuesday, capping months of intense political jockeying among Democratic factions in the state.
The son of Mexican-born immigrants who settled in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, Mr. Padilla, 47, will be the first Latino senator from California, where Latinos are about 40 percent 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,” said Mr. Padilla in a statement.
“From those struggling to make ends meet to the small businesses fighting to keep their doors open to the health care workers looking for relief, please know that I am going to the Senate to fight for you. We will get through this pandemic together and rebuild our economy in a way that doesn’t leave working families behind.”
“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,” said Mr. Newsom. “He will be a Senator for all Californians.”
The decision followed months of deliberation by Mr. 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 Ms. Harris’s term ends.
California progressives had pushed Mr. Newsom to appoint Representative Barbara Lee or another like-minded Democrat. Mr. Newsom was also under pressure to appoint a Black woman to take the place of Ms. Harris, the only Black woman in the Senate. Representative Karen Bass and Ms. Lee were at the top of that list.
As weeks passed after the presidential election, the back-channel advocacy that had gone on since Ms. Harris was chosen as the running mate of President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. broke into the open with public endorsements, full-page newspaper ads and open letters. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus strongly backed Mr. Padilla. The L.G.B.T.Q. 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 Ms. Bass or Ms. Lee.
California’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, endorsed Mr. Padilla, who had worked in her field office early in his career. But other interest groups wanted Ms. Feinstein herself to step down — a call that gained traction after a New Yorker article this month suggested that Ms. Feinstein, 87, was experiencing cognitive decline.
The elevation of Mr. Padilla leaves Mr. Newsom with a vacancy in the secretary of state’s office, a potential consolation prize for at least one disappointed contender. He will also have to appoint a new attorney general if the Senate confirms Xavier Becerra’s nomination as Mr. Biden’s secretary of health and human services.
The attorney general post, in particular, has in recent years served as a springboard for higher office; besides Mr. Becerra, recent attorneys general include Ms. 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, Mr. Vassar said, but one was simply to speed up an incoming senator’s arrival.
In sending Mr. Padilla to the Senate, Mr. 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, Mr. 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 undocumented immigrants from public services including schools and nonemergency health care, he 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.
Mr. Padilla worked as a community organizer for Art Torres, who would later lead the state Democratic Party (and who also mentored Mr. Becerra). He went on to run legislative campaigns for two Latino politicians in Los Angeles and work in Ms. 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 Mr. Newsom was running for mayor of San Francisco, Mr. 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, Mr. Padilla ran Mr. Newsom’s 2009 bid for governor before Jerry Brown got into the race and Mr. Newsom dropped out, running instead for lieutenant governor.
In 2018, he stood by Mr. Newsom yet again, endorsing him early in a crowded primary that included former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles.
As secretary of state, Mr. Padilla promised to register a million new California voters; the state has added more than four million as a result of legislation he backed that registers Californians to vote when they get their driver’s licenses.
A father of three, Mr. 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,” Mr. Padilla said. He cited the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on communities of color, inequities in digital literacy and “the longstanding 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.