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Calif. governor faces pressure to choose a Latino to replace Harris in the Senate

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) holds his weekly news conference on Monday.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) holds his weekly news conference on Monday. (AP)
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SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Since California was carved out of Mexico and joined the union more than a century and a half ago, the state has never had a Latino representing it in the U.S. Senate. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) now has the opportunity to change that amid increasing pressure to do so.

Two Latino politicians have emerged as top contenders for the post to be vacated by Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris, who became the first woman of color to win a U.S. Senate seat here in 2016. A selection process has just begun to balance this state’s peculiar demands of history, geography and race that will shape Newsom’s decision, which may not come until the new year.

But the characteristics surrounding this choice, and what political analysts, advisers and others say will be important to Newsom, suggest that at this early stage California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) and Secretary of State Alex Padilla (D) are the leading candidates. Among their other attributes is one that analysts and political advisers here say is important to Newsom: past success in statewide political contests.

Whoever is selected to succeed Harris will have to defend the seat in just two years, a quick turnaround in a vast, politically expensive state. Their commanding victories in statewide races just two years ago place them, according to political analysts, above a collection of highly regarded House members and locally elected officials who will probably also be considered for the post.

“The history would not be lost on Gavin, and appointing either would be good for the state and the country as a way to increase the representation of this growing political bloc,” said Karen Skelton, a Democratic political consultant in Sacramento who is not involved in the selection process. “And both are ready to hit the ground running.”

The speculation around who would succeed Harris began almost as soon as President-elect Joe Biden picked her as his running mate last summer. Now the lobbying has begun in earnest, even though President Trump has yet to concede the presidential race.

Kamala Harris, daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, elected nation’s first female vice president

In his regular Monday news conference, Newsom said the timing of his choice would be coordinated closely with Harris, who has yet to set her own schedule for when she will resign her seat.

“No timeline has been established, and the process is just beginning to unfold,” Newsom told reporters. “We just got word that the race was called by everyone but the current occupant of the White House.”

Newsom said he wants to ensure that the selection process is “inclusive,” meaning weeks of meetings with various interest groups. He said work has just begun to sort through the “cattle-call of considerations related to what profile” his preferred candidate will have.

“I want to make sure that we are considerate of people’s points of view, and we are in the middle of that as we speak,” said Newsom, who added that the selection process is, at this stage, less urgent to him than the state’s once-again rising coronavirusinfection rate.

California politics is a broad, sometimes bizarre amalgamation of competing geographic, ideological and racial interests, each rising and falling in importance depending on the moment at hand.

The once-defining rivalry between Northern and Southern California has in recent years faded and given way to a split between the liberal coast and the more conservative — and economically challenged — interior of the state.

But Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco, is among the handful of Bay Area Democrats, including former governor Jerry Brown, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Harris, who have dominated political power here in recent decades. A nod to the state’s south will be, if not the most important factor, a possibly influential one.

Padilla is from Los Angeles, first winning election to the city council there at age 26, and Becerra, after growing up in Sacramento, went on to represent a Los Angeles-area congressional district.

But most political analysts say geographic balance is less important than considerations of race and history, particularly when it comes to the rising economic and political power of Latinos in the state and the battering the group has taken this year.

Latinos make up almost 40 percent of California’s population, having overtaken Whites as the largest racial group in the 1990s, a decade marked by several successful ballot measures hostile to illegal immigration and racial preferences in public decision-making.

Since then the racial gap has widened and Latinos have had success across the ballot, except when running for the top state and federal offices.

Newsom beat former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D) soundly in the 2018 governor’s race, and Feinstein easily brushed off former state Senate president Kevin de León to hold her seat. De León has since been elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

“We have not had a Latino senator from California in 170 years,” said Christian Arana, policy director for the nonprofit Latino Community Foundation. “We think it’s about time.”

The foundation, which encourages investment in grass-roots political organizations, released an open letter to Newsom this week calling on the governor to appoint a Latino to the soon-to-be-open Senate seat.

Arana said the foundation is not lobbying for a specific candidate. But it is seeking from Newsom the same kind of pledge Biden gave during the primaries when he promised to choose a woman as his running mate.

Latinos have often born the brunt of California’s history as a partisan laboratory and this year, as the vital core of the state’s vast service economy, they have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. Of California’s nearly 978,000 cases of the coronavirus, Latinos account for 61 percent.

“At the end of the day, no amount of philanthropy is going to help make the changes we are hoping to see in some of our communities,” Arana said. “We have to see representation at the highest levels of the federal government.”

This would be Becerra’s second time following Harris, who won her U.S. Senate seat in 2016 when she was serving as California’s attorney general. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) picked Becerra, then serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, for the job.

For Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, the fight with Trump is personal

The son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to graduate from college, Becerra has fought vigorously against the Trump administration’s immigration, environmental and health- care policies, suing the federal government more than 100 times since taking office.

On Tuesday, Becerra’s legal team led arguments before the Supreme Court in defense of the Affordable Care Act.

Becerra easily won election to the post in 2018. He has Washington experience as a former congressman, a qualification analysts say Newsom may turn to in a close decision. One complicating factor: Becerra may be under consideration for a post in Biden’s Cabinet, perhaps as attorney general.

“I am 150 percent confident that President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris will be dynamic partners that California can count on,” Becerra said Tuesday in a statement. “They’ve got some big decisions to make, including naming the team they’ll put on the field with quarterback Biden.”

Becerra said Newsom will also have “a big decision” to make regarding Harris’s replacement.

“Governor Newsom has had more than his share of tough calls to make,” he said. “I have no doubt that his choice to serve as California’s junior senator will be the right one for our state.”

Other Latino lobbying efforts have focused on Padilla, who secured more votes in the 2018 election than either Newsom or Becerra.

The Latino Victory Fund started a “Pick Padilla” campaign even before the election was called to focus Newsom’s attention on another son of Mexican immigrants and one of the few elected officials who supported the governor in his brief, unsuccessful run against Brown a decade ago. His mother a maid, his father a cafeteria cook, Padilla graduated from MIT before beginning his political career.

Padilla was first elected to the Los Angeles City Council at the end of the decade when Whites were overtaken by Latinos as the state’s largest racial group. He was 26, and since then, has served as council president, in the California Senate and now as secretary of state overseeing an election that featured a historically large turnout.

Neither Padilla nor Becerra exude much flash, and whereas Becerra served in Congress, Padilla expanded his profile to the capital as the former head of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. Because of his early support for Newsom, longtime loyalty may be a deciding factor if he is selected.

Like many politicians, Newsom is a fan of “firsts.”

As San Francisco’s mayor, he was the first nationally to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Earlier this year he appointed judge Martin Jenkins as the first openly gay justice to the state Supreme Court.

There are other Latinos who could fit the profile and even add another first, namely Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, who is also openly gay.

At 42 years old, Garcia was given a speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention as a rising star in the party. Both of Garcia’s parents — his mother brought him to the United States from Peru at age 5 — have died this year of the coronavirus.

But Garcia is untested in statewide campaigns and, despite the DNC exposure, is not widely known outside of his city.

The process is still wide open and new factors may emerge in the coming weeks, which given the uncertain transition at the White House, may prove volatile.

Skelton, the Democratic consultant, said Newsom should not narrow his focus too soon on a Latino replacement. Harris made history just four years ago as the state’s first woman of color to serve in the U.S. Senate — and only the second Black woman to do so.

Skelton said it may be too soon to turn the page on that historic “first.”

Two prominent Black women — Reps. Karen Bass, from Los Angeles, and Barbara Lee, from Oakland — have emerged as strong candidates to replace Harris. Bass was on Biden’s running-mate shortlist, and both represent safe House seats for Democrats.

“Black women decided this election,” Skelton said. “When you take Kamala out of the picture, you now see a huge void in the U.S. Senate. Gavin Newsom can make history as easily by backfilling the seat with another Black woman as he can by picking a Latino.”