Race And Ideology Take Center Stage In Scramble To Succeed Kamala Harris

Daniel Marans
·Reporter, HuffPost
·12 min read
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is shown here walking meets with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in September. Harris' ascent to the vice presidency tasks Newsom with selecting a replacement. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is shown here walking meets with California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in September. Harris' ascent to the vice presidency tasks Newsom with selecting a replacement. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

When Kamala Harris assumes her historic role as the first woman and nonwhite vice president in January, she will be vacating one of California’s two U.S. Senate seats.

It is now up to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a first-term Democrat, to decide whether to call a special election or choose a replacement to serve out the remainder of Harris’ term, which is slated to end in 2022.

Newsom has been tight-lipped about his plans, but the conventional wisdom among Golden State politics watchers is that Newsom will appoint a replacement rather than delay the arrival of a new Democratic senator with an expensive special election. And Newsom’s allies have made clear that he does not plan to name a white man to the seat.

As a result, activists and various progressive groups began a campaign to sway Newsom months before the election, and that has intensified in recent days. The jockeying is intense because whoever gains control of the seat — and runs for election as an incumbent in two years — is likely to control the influential and safely Democratic post for decades to come.

Three main camps and their subgroups are trying to influence Newsom: Those advocating for a Black woman; those advocating for a Latino; and those advocating for a member of the LGBT community.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif., left) attends the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lee's opposition to endless war has endeared her to the left. (Photo: Pool via Getty Images)
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif., left) attends the memorial service for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Lee's opposition to endless war has endeared her to the left. (Photo: Pool via Getty Images)

‘A Progressive Black Woman’

Black activists and progressive groups insist that Newsom name a Black woman to replace Harris, only the second Black woman to serve in the Senate.

Black Americans make up about 13% of the population but occupy just two of 100 Senate seats. Both of them ― New Jersey Democrat Sen. Cory Booker and South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott ― are men.

“Not having a Black woman’s voice in there would be a void,” said Melanie Campbell, president of the Washington-based Black Women’s Roundtable.

The Black Women’s Roundtable and its allies propose that Newsom tap either Rep. Karen Bass of Los Angeles or Rep. Barbara Lee of the East Bay Area.

“Black women are the most active participants in the voting process. We are underrepresented ― especially in the Senate,” said Glenda Gill, the head of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit and active member of the Black Women’s Roundtable.

“The people we are recommending are stellar,” she added.

A group of prominent California Democratic donors amplified these calls on Monday with an open letter asking Newsom to pick a “woman of color,” though unlike the other groups, they did not specify that it had to be a Black woman.

Bass and Lee’s credibility with the activist left makes them compatible with the policy agenda of national progressive organizations. Democracy for America, a digital progressive group, has called for Newsom to name a “progressive Black woman” to replace Harris.

Bass chairs the Congressional Black Caucus and briefly came under consideration as Biden’s running mate. She has made more inroads with the party establishment.

Lee is a 24-year House veteran famous for her lone vote against authorizing military force after the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. She appears to enjoy an edge with progressive activists.

Aimee Allison, founder of the progressive group She the People, wrote an op-ed calling on Newsom to name Lee to take Harris’ place. Lee tweeted the article with approval: “It would be an honor” to fill Harris’ seat, she wrote.

What is important is that the pick be a strong progressive. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)

Rep. Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley progressive, retweeted Lee in turn, arguing that Lee would be an “incredible pick.”

“What is important is that the pick be a strong progressive,” he wrote.

But Newsom — a mainstream liberal who tends to avoid upsetting the apple cart — is unlikely to pick Lee or Bass precisely because they are progressive favorites. And age is a factor: Bass is 67 and Lee is 74. Appointing them would possibly deprive Newsom of the chance to advance the career of an up-and-coming party figure.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, 46 — a business-friendly moderate — might be a likelier pick of a Black woman. Breed drew praise for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. But her opposition to a referendum to raise taxes on big business to fund homeless services remained a source of distrust with the city’s outspoken left wing.

Newsom himself rose to political power as mayor of San Francisco and hails from the same Bay Area political machine as Breed. Picking her would signal a continuation of Bay Area Democrats’ uncontested dominance of state politics, rather than a nod to the state’s larger, more diverse and less wealthy population centers in the south. Newsom, both U.S. senators from California and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi all hail from the Bay Area.

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (center) celebrates the L.A. Dodgers' World Series win with Newsom (left). Padilla is widely viewed as a front-runner to replace Sen. Harris. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Getty Images)
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla (center) celebrates the L.A. Dodgers' World Series win with Newsom (left). Padilla is widely viewed as a front-runner to replace Sen. Harris. (Photo: Carolyn Cole/Getty Images)

‘Pick Padilla’ And The De León Delegation

A second camp lobbying Newsom includes groups and activists advocating for a Latino to fill Harris’ seat. Latinos made up the largest ethnic group in the state, accounting for more than 39% of California’s population as of 2019. Black people, by contrast, constituted 6.5% of the state’s population. And yet no Latino has represented California in the Senate.

There is no shortage of Latino elected officials and rising political stars at all levels of government from which Newsom can choose. Prominent state Democrats include Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who previously served as U.S. Secretary of Labor.

But the clear favorite is Secretary of State Alex Padilla, 47, according to several state Democrats. Padilla oversaw the state’s recent elections and is likely the only contender who has an entire ad hoc pressure group in his corner.

The Latino Victory Fund, a national Democratic group that elects Latino candidates, launched “Pick Padilla” in August ahead of the Biden-Harris ticket’s expected victory. The group has promoted Padilla in the news media as the contender with the greatest experience and strongest record of winning elections.

Padilla has “demonstrated a genuine passion for serving his community, which he balances with the honed political acumen needed to legislate effectively and lead daunting efforts to protect and expand voter rights,” Nathalie Rayes, president of the Latino Victory fund, said in a statement to HuffPost.

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He’s the ideal candidate to break one more barrier. Nathalie Rayes, Latino Victory Fund

The fund emphasized Padilla’s rise from a humble background as the son of Mexican immigrants to a degree in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Padilla’s storied career in politics began when he became the youngest and first Latino president of the Los Angeles City Council at age 26. He went on to represent L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in the state Senate before being elected secretary of state in 2014.

“He’s the ideal candidate to break one more barrier by becoming the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate and increase Latino representation,” Rayes said.

Critically, Padilla has a working relationship with Newsom, which could work in his favor. And Padilla employs the same media consulting firm, SCRB Strategies, that Newsom used for his successful gubernatorial run in 2018.

Padilla’s ideology and policy interests, by contrast, are not a big part of his pitch. Neither Latino Victory, nor Padilla’s spokesperson, had a clear answer when asked what issues Padilla planned to focus on as a U.S. senator.

As a state senator, Padilla tread a noncontroversial path. One of Padilla’s biggest triumphs was authoring a 2014 bill barring stores from distributing single-use plastic bags.

On issues of major importance to the activist left, Padilla has sided with the state’s Democratic establishment. He abstained from a 2012 vote on a bill to implement single-payer health care in the state. And Padilla not only endorsed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s 2018 re-election, but also spoke on her behalf at an event at which she sought the California Democratic Party’s endorsement. Feinstein did not receive the endorsement but won reelection against then-state Senate President Kevin de León by more than 8 percentage points in 2018.

Kevin de León, a Los Angeles city councilman and former state Senate president, is an underdog in the bid to replace Harris, but he retains a loyal following. (Photo: Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto/Getty Images)
Kevin de León, a Los Angeles city councilman and former state Senate president, is an underdog in the bid to replace Harris, but he retains a loyal following. (Photo: Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

It’s precisely Padilla’s divergence from de León, another son of Latino immigrants with humble Los Angeles roots, that has prompted some progressives and Latino party activists to mount a fledgling campaign for de León to get the nod from Newsom.

“Is the governor going to do what’s right for the state of California or is he going to appoint a friend?” asked Susie Shannon, a housing advocate and California member of the Democratic National Committee. “I don’t want somebody who goes to Washington, and we never hear from them again.”

De León, who is 53 and a Los Angeles city councilman, began his career as an immigration advocate and teachers union official before winning a seat in the state Assembly in 2006 and ascending to the state Senate in 2010.

De León’s biggest accomplishments in the state Senate were in advancing the state’s commitment to renewable energy. His efforts culminated in the passage of a law requiring the state to phase out its use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2045.

Progressive activists in the state also credit de León with advancing state-level single-payer health care legislation, shepherding a law allotting more funding to tackle homelessness and stepping up to challenge the more moderate Feinstein in 2018.

De León distinguished himself from Feinstein by promising a more confrontational approach with President Donald Trump; Feinstein vowed to give Trump a chance. The state senator promised to back elimination of the filibuster and hit Feinstein’s hard-line stance on immigration enforcement in the 1990s.

At the time, Feinstein’s funding advantage and ironclad support from the party establishment, including former President Barack Obama, made the challenge a lonely and thankless venture. And Feinstein’s comfortable margin of victory did little to dispel that perception.

For Latinos, we need to see it ― someone with that kind of chutzpah. Annette Gonzalez-Buttner, Imperial County Democratic Central Committee

But de León’s prospects are getting a second look after progressives lambasted Feinstein as naive and ineffectual for her handling of the confirmation hearings for Republican Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. De León’s name began trending on Twitter after 87-year-old Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, hugged Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). Feinstein, who won the endorsement of prominent California editorial boards in 2018 thanks to her seniority on the powerful committee, recently announced that she planned to cede the top spot in the next Congress.

De León’s 2018 performance is enough to earn him the endorsement of the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee, a local party body in California’s heavily Latino and impoverished southeastern corner. Annette Gonzalez-Buttner, a county school board member who chairs the Imperial County Democratic Central Committee, cited the California Democratic Party’s endorsement of de León as evidence that he is capable of unifying the state’s Democrats ahead of the 2022 election.

“When he took that endorsement from Dianne Feinstein ― that was courageous. He didn’t have nearly as much money as she did. I was blown away,” Gonzalez-Buttner recalled. “For Latinos, we need to see it ― someone with that kind of chutzpah.”

Still, prospects are dim that Newsom would select de León so soon after the former state Senate leader took on the Democratic establishment. Even before the 2018 race, the two California Democrats had a history of clashing dating back to Newsom’s tenure as lieutenant governor.

“Whoever Gov. Newsom chooses should have strong leadership on climate change, immigration, homelessness and especially foreign affairs when it comes to our own Western hemisphere,” de León told HuffPost. “I’m sure he’ll choose the right person for this moment.”

If appointed, Robert Garcia (D) — mayor of Long Beach, California — would be both the state's first Latino senator and the state's first openly LGBTQ senator. (Photo: Bob Riha Jr / Reuters)
If appointed, Robert Garcia (D) — mayor of Long Beach, California — would be both the state's first Latino senator and the state's first openly LGBTQ senator. (Photo: Bob Riha Jr / Reuters)

A Potential LGBTQ Milestone

A third faction of Democrats is lobbying Newsom to make history in another way: Tap a member of the LGBTQ community to fill the post. Democratic Sens. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona are the first two LGBTQ senators in history.

The LGBTQ Victory Fund — which works to elect LGBTQ people to public office at all levels of government — suggested earlier this month that Newsom pick one of two people: State Sen. Toni Atkins (D-San Diego), de León’s successor as state Senate president, or Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia.

When he was elected in 2014, Garcia became the Southern California city’s first openly gay and first Latino mayor.

“Governor Newsom is one of the strongest allies we have in elected office and consistently shows courage in his efforts to advance equality, so we are hopeful he will add to his legacy with an LGBTQ appointment,” LGBTQ Victory Fund President Annise Parker, the former Houston mayor, said in a statement.

All of the factional jockeying has some Democrats concerned that a selection process designed to reflect partisan consensus could leave open wounds. The governor, after all, only has one seat to fill.

“I don’t want there to be a faction after the fact ― whoever is chosen,” said Los Angeles County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Gonzalez, who is neutral in the selection process. “I don’t want us to lose our focus within the party.”

Gonzalez is especially concerned that the process is pitting the party’s two core constituencies ― Black Americans and Latinos ― against each other.

An additional worry is that some of the state’s most promising stars, such as Reps. Adam Schiff of Los Angeles and Katie Porter of Orange County, are not well positioned to prevail in a closed-door process orchestrated by the governor.

Newsom may get the chance to fill yet another U.S. Senate seat, if, as many assume, Feinstein resigns before the completion of her term in 2024. Pressure would grow for Newsom at least to allow a special election to replace her, creating an open field on which multiple candidates can compete.

Some Democrats want Newsom to take a more neutral posture now by tapping a placeholder senator who promises not to seek reelection in 2022. That would allow the voters the biggest possible voice in the process and give the party’s deep bench of ascendant Democratic elected officials the chance to duke it out for an open seat in two years’ time.

“How do you pick who’s going to be the next senator in such a large state?” said Elijah Lefkow, a Democratic consultant who advised San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez on her unsuccessful congressional run. “You have to have an open election.”

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.