The son of Mexican immigrants, Padilla grew up in Pacoima, a largely overlooked California town on the outskirts of the San Fernando Valley. Padilla didn’t so much go to politics as politics came to him. As he described in an emotional exchange with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), Padilla’s parents struggled to provide him with the opportunity to get an engineering degree from MIT. Yet the view from Pacoima left Padilla with the indelible imprint of the profound political changes underway during the 1980s and 1990s.
Padilla graduated from MIT in 1994, during a recession. In California, support was growing among many voters for Proposition 187, a ballot measure that aimed to deny public, social, educational and health services to the state’s undocumented immigrants. Padilla experienced the vilification of his identity when the recession struck and Proposition 187 appeared as a direct attack on him and his family. In an interview with NBC News, Padilla explained, “I couldn’t help but take it personally and push back against it.”
Academics see Prop. 187 as a watershed moment for Latino mobilization and political participation. “There was this huge march from the east side of Los Angeles to the steps of City Hall, which was 75,000 to 100,000 people … we were in that march,” Padilla recalled in the NBC interview.
After dabbling in the private sector, Padilla turned to politics. He ran for Los Angeles City Council, then the California State Senate, and then ran for secretary of state. Among a slate of promising Latino politicians in his generation, Padilla distinguished himself as steady, reliable — and free of scandal.
But what does Padilla’s move to the Senate mean for American politics? Here are some takeaways.
When Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden chose Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as his running mate, Padilla was a favored successor for her Senate seat for several reasons. A product of California’s tumultuous political conversation over immigration in the wake of Prop. 187, Padilla was part of a profound moment in California politics. His ascension through the political ranks symbolizes the growing importance of Latino politics in California and across the nation. Research has shown, for instance, that descriptive representation — where a representative looks like their constituency — enhances substantive representation, where representatives “openly, actively, and specifically embrace the interests of Latino constituencies in policy proposals.”
Newsom’s announcement last month notes Padilla’s record on expanding the franchise — voter registration in California is at an all-time high, and Padilla coordinated the overhaul of the state’s voting system during an unprecedented health crisis. Given the recent assault on democratic norms and attacks on the electoral process by Republican legislators who continue to insist — without merit — that President Trump won the 2020 election, Congress will no doubt make a considerable effort to shore up protections to the democratic process. Padilla is in a unique position to make his greatest impact on this important national issue.
Mobilization remains a hurdle for the Latino community
Although the power of Latino voters continues to increase in real numbers during each election, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated Latino turnout rates in presidential elections has been below 50 percent since 1980, lower than turnout rates for White and Black voters. Preliminary data from 2020 suggests that hasn’t changed, and that Latino demographic growth, rather than political integration, continues to be the engine of Latino politics.
Padilla’s appointment, however, marks a significant moment for Latino political integration and mobilization. Political scientists connect shared ethnicity to increased political participation among Latinos and other groups. Along with Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Padilla is likely to help strengthen the appeal of Democrats among Latino voters. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in contrast, has sought to portray Democrats as socialists, playing on Cuban Americans’ fear of communism, in particular.
The 117th U.S. Congress will have no Black female senators
Newsom reportedly faced pressure to pick an African American woman to take ’s seat. With Padilla filling that seat, the U.S. Senate will have zero Black female senators this session.
Democrats have struggled to strike a balance between the competition for Senate seats and ensuring that the party reflects the diversity of its constituents, since the party reformed itself in 1972. As California’s rapidly shifting demographics over the past several decades have presented the party with difficult decisions, choosing Padilla was sure to result in concerns among important Democrat constituencies.
Newsom, in a gesture toward acknowledging the difficult trade-offs when minority candidates vie for a limited number of seats, appointed the chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, Assembly member Shirley Weber, to step into Padilla’s position. Weber becomes California’s first African American secretary of state.
Will Padilla inspire new Latino candidates?
The spotlight on Padilla also exposes a considerable weakness within the Democratic Party, which relies on their appeal to voters of color to bring out the votes to win elections. But analysts see a relatively weak bench of Democratic candidates from marginalized groups who are positioned to win statewide and national offices. Some research suggests that while liberal Democrats are often seen as more open to welcoming minorities into the party, voting for minorities in their district is a different issue.
This means minority candidates face a tough electoral calculus: They may think a highly educated White population would be a promising factor to help them win office, but they are disappointed by weak support on Election Day. And while Democrats have made notable appointments of Latinos to leadership positions, such as outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, barriers still remain.
Stephen Nuño-Perez (@SNunoPerez) is associate professor and chair of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University and a research fellow for the Thomas and Dorothy Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles.