On Deck

Alex Padilla to replace Kamala Harris in the Senate

Jewish California politicos praised Gov. Gavin Newsom’s selection of the state's secretary of state

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla talks during a news conference Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla will serve out the final two years of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Senate term, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced on Tuesday.

Padilla, the son of Mexican immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles and earned a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After a brief career in aerospace, he entered politics, winning a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1999 at age 26. Two years later, he became the body’s first Latino leader and youngest president. He subsequently served in the California State Senate from 2006 to 2014, and was elected secretary of state in 2014.

“I think it’s an excellent choice,” Zev Yaroslavsky, a former member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, told Jewish Insider. “He’s very smart. He’s an adult, in a world of political figures that are increasingly falling short of adulthood. He’s a progressive who believes in paying his bills. He’s a center left person.”

“I think he will become an instant player in the Senate and increasingly on the national scene,” Yaroslavsky added.

Padilla has a “very close relationship” with California’s Jewish community, Yaroslavsky noted. He has visited Israel at least twice, Richard Hirschhaut, the head of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles, told JI.

“I know just in speaking with friends and colleagues that he has had a particular affinity and fondness for the State of Israel,” Hirschhaut said, recounting that Padilla visited the Israeli consulate in 2016 to pay his respects after the death of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres. “I think it spoke volumes of his genuine affection for the Jewish community and the State of Israel.”

California Assembly Majority Whip Jesse Gabriel, the newly elected chair of the California Legislative Jewish Caucus, described Padilla as a “good friend and ally to our community” and said that Jewish and pro-Israel leaders became excited when it became public that Padilla was under consideration to replace Harris.

“There’s a lot of warmth and affection for him in our community,” Gabriel said. “Alex Padilla is a huge mensch. I think that as more and more folks in the national Jewish community get to meet him and interact with him and work with him on issues important to our community, I think more people are going to share that assessment.”

Padilla, who will be the first Latino senator to represent the Golden State in the Senate, has long been seen as a top candidate for the seat. Gabriel said the announcement did not surprise him. 

According to Sam Lauter, a California political consultant and longtime Newsom associate, the governor’s choice was likely influenced by his strong relationship with Padilla, as well as a desire to recognize the state’s Latino community — which makes up 40% of the state population — and Padilla’s track record in office.

The pick also gave Newsom the opportunity to select a secretary of state to replace Padilla, Lauter added. Newsom announced Tuesday night that he chose Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, the first Black woman to ever hold the position.

Some California Democrats have expressed concerns about Newsom’s decision to replace the only Black woman in the Senate with a non-Black man. A significant lobbying campaign had emerged in the weeks prior to the announcement for Newsom to appoint either Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) or Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), both Black women, to the seat.

Yaroslavsky argued that, given the large Latino population in the state, it would have been “unthinkable not to select a member of that community to represent the state of California.”

Lauter noted that, given the wide field of potential candidates, many of whom had strong qualifications, “no matter what, he was going to pick someone that disappointed an important community.” He said that there were concerted lobbying campaigns not only from the Black community, but also the Latino and Asian-American communities.

“The governor was in a tough situation because there are a lot of different perspectives, obviously, in a state with 40 million people in a lot of different communities. Different folks from different ethnic [groups] and communities who wanted to see themselves represented in the Senate,” Gabriel concurred. “But there’s broad consensus that Secretary Padilla was the leading candidate and very well qualified.”

“For a lot of people this is a really strong choice,” Gabriel added. “Even though there are folks who are disappointed, I think there’s a lot more folks who are excited by the pick.”

Padilla will face California voters in 2022 to secure a full six-year term in the Senate, though he is likely to encounter some resistance from warring factions within the Democratic Party.

But observers say he has a strong shot at maintaining the seat, particularly given his previous statewide electoral victories.

Gabriel said he expects Padilla to “cruise” to reelection in two years. 

Lauter was less sanguine, emphasizing that Padilla will certainly face challengers, some of whom have a “significant head start” in terms of fundraising and organizing for a potential Senate run.

He acknowledged however, that it is “longshot” that Padilla would lose, even if he does face a difficult race.

There has also been speculation that Newsom could end up naming a replacement to succeed California’s other senator, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) — who is 87 years old and is facing questions about her health and memory — should she choose to step down before her term ends in 2024. Should that position open up, Newsom will once again have a wide field to choose from.

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