By Stephanie Shields
On Tuesday December 22nd, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a long-awaited announcement: Alex Padilla, California’s current Secretary of State, would be appointed to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as California’s first Latino senator. Vice President-elect Harris was the nation's only female Black senator, so Governor Newsom’s failure to appoint a Black woman as her replacement means that there will be no Black women in the Senate in 2021.
Who was in the running?
While the Latino community (in particular, The Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Latino Victory Fund) pushed for either Alex Padilla or Xavier Becerra to assume the position, the LGBTQ community pushed for Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, and numerous Black elected officials pushed for Congressional Representatives Karen Bass or Barbara Lee. Organizations such as The Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Equality California, and the Electing Women Bay Area published full-page newspaper ads, open-letters, and public endorsements as attempts to influence Governor Newsom’s decision. Even Representative Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) weighed in, tweeting, “We absolutely cannot go backwards. With the election of @KamalaHarris to VP-elect, @CAgovernor must prioritize this leadership, perspective & representation in the vacated U.S. Senate seat & appoint a black woman.”
The two top Black female contenders were Rep. Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus who is serving her sixth term in Congress, and Rep. Barbara Lee, vice-chair and founding member of the LGBT Caucus who has served in Congress for the past twenty two years. Rep. Karen Bass has been incredibly vocal in pushing for police reform measures in Congress and has fought for social and environmental justice since she began as a community organizer in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Rep. Barbara Lee served in the state assembly for six years before joining Congress and came under the national spotlight after being the only member of Congress to vote against the Iraq War after 9/11. Both would have been incredible picks based on their lengthy experience in Washington, however neither have held statewide office.
It was clear that Governor Newsom wanted to select a candidate who currently held a statewide position. Once Xavier Becerra (a twelve-term congressman who is currently serving as California’s Attorney General) was nominated by President-elect Biden to lead the US Department of Health and Human Services in early December, Alex Padilla emerged as a clear frontrunner. Padilla even received an official endorsement from California’s senior senator, Diane Feinstein.
Who is Alex Padilla?
Raised in a working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles by immigrant parents from Mexico, Padilla paid his way through MIT by working janitorial jobs. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering with the intent of becoming an aerospace engineer. However, he was drawn into politics due to anti-immigrant policies plaguing California in the late 1990s, prompting him to become a community organizer.
Beyond his geographic, socioeconomic, and racially diverse background, Padilla is an undoubtedly qualified candidate. He was first elected to the Los Angeles city council in 1999 at the age of twenty-six, and by 2001 became the council’s youngest president. He went on to become a state senator and has served as California's Secretary of State since 2015.
Padilla successfully streamlined the voting process for Californians this election cycle by sending mail-in ballots to every single registered voter in the state, a step taken to combat Trump’s harsh messaging against voting by mail.
Alex Padilla and Governor Gavin Newsom
Alex Padilla and Governor Newsom have been close political allies ever since 2003. Padilla introduced Newsom to his fundraising contacts in LA, assisting Newsom’s campaign for mayor of San Francisco. Years later, Padilla ran Newsom’s 2010 governor campaign and served as chairman until Gov. Jerry Brown entered the race and Newsom dropped out. In 2018, Padilla endorsed Newsom very early on in the race—when the primary was extremely crowded. In short: Padilla and Governor Newsom are longtime political allies, and neither Rep. Karen Bass nor Rep. Barbara Lee (the two top Black female contenders for the appointment) have a similar relationship.
Lack of Black Women in the Senate
With Vice President-elect Kamala Harris leaving the Senate come late January, there will be no Black women serving in the Senate for at least the next two years. But Governor Newsom’s appointment decision can be explained by the fact that Latinos make up forty percent of California’s current population, and are thus an incredibly powerful voting bloc. This is a victory for California’s sixteen million Latinos, but devastating for the nation’s twenty-two million Black women. While Padilla will increase the number of Latinos in the Senate to six, there will be zero Black women in the chamber. In fact, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was the second to Black women ever to be elected to the Senate (after Sen. Moseley Braun of Illinois).
Congressional Representatives Karen Bass (CA-37) and Barbara Lee (CA-13) both have decades of experience in D.C.—something that Padilla lacks. Although neither have held a statewide position, they both have extensive histories as public servants serving California communities. And since these women do not currently holding statewide positions, Governor Newsom would not have been bale to appoint their replacements, which is likely power he did not want to give up.
As expressed by Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights for America (an organization that includes a PAC working to elect Black women into office), candidates of color are less likely than their white counterparts to have a wealthy fundraising network to tap into. This puts women of color in politics at a major disadvantage—especially when campaigning in California, where campaigns are notoriously expensive.
The Gen Z Take
In the collective mind of Generation Z, it’s quite simple: representation matters. This appointment is a massive victory for California’s Latino population who have been grossly underrepresented in both state and nationwide politics. Newsom's choice increases Latino representation in the Senate, and thus inspires and promotes future generations of Latinos to become involved in politics.
It’s important to recognize that the perfect candidate does not exist. Newsom’s appointment took a step back for female representation, as it brought the number of women in the Senate overall from twenty-five to twenty-four, which is disgracefully low. As a consequence of Newsom’s decision, not a single Black girl in America will have a Senator who looks like them for at least the next two years. Also, California has never sent an openly LGBT representative to the U.S. Senate.
Minority representation in the government affects both how others see them, and how they see themselves. Although the appointment of Alex Padilla breaks glass ceilings, there is plenty of more work to be done in minority representation in the U.S. government.